Four days after lifting their fifth Qatar Stars League trophy in seven years, news emerged that Lekhwiya Sports Club are no more. The Security Force-affiliated club was founded in 2009 with strong backing from Qatar’s Ministry of Interior. Lekhwiya started in the second division (now known as QatarGas League), the lowest tier of Qatari football’s two-divisions system. They quickly gained promotion to the Qatar Stars League the following season and went on to beat the big boys and win the title in their first season thanks to deep pockets that enabled them to cherry-pick the best of the division’s players.
Fast forward to 2017 and Lekhwiya have won four more QSL titles and established themselves as the team to beat in the peninsula. So, why is the Lekhwiya story coming to an end by end of this season?
To answer the question, let’s first go back to 2011. Triggered by the early success of Lekhwiya, another club emerged into the forefront of Qatari football, also affiliated with a state security establishment. This time it was the army club, El Jaish. The nouveau-riche duo became the new powerhouses of Qatari football and while El Jaish ultimately failed to win the league, instead finishing runners-up twice, the army boys fared relatively better on the AFC Champions League front. They reached as far as the semi-final in last year’s edition before bowing out to UAE giants Al Ain.
After a long saga, a statement by Qatar’s Ministry of Culture and Sports, dated April 10th, 2017, announced that they had accepted a request by Lekhwiya Sports Club to be renamed “Al Duhail Sports Club” and another request by El Jaish Sports Club to merge into Al Duhail Sports Club. The merger shall come into effect by the start of the 2017/18 domestic season in Qatar.
While the statement gave no explanation as to the reasoning behind the move, it is widely acknowledged that for all their success on the pitch, both clubs had failed to capture the imagination of Qatari fans. Two super-rich clubs, ultimately belonging to the military and security force organisations were never going to be as popular as the organically founded and grown traditional powerhouses, the likes of Al Sadd, Al Rayyan and Al Arabi who have shaped the living memory of Qatari football fans for decades.
To address the above issue, the new club will no longer be associated with any security apparatus. Instead, it will carry the name of Al Duhail district where both clubs are based and will represent the area in the league, thus creating an organic affiliation and eventually building a natural fan base.
Additionally, having no exceptional state-affiliation, Al Duhail will not continue to enjoy the unlimited influx of cash that had put El Jaish and Lekhwiya head and shoulders above the rest of the teams in the division and as a result the merger will have a positive impact on the financial balance between QSL clubs.
Former Qatar international defender Yousef Adam, now manager of QSL side Al Ahli is looking forward to the opportunities this merger will present for the rest of the league, his team included. Adam told Doha-based publication ‘Estad Al Doha’, “This merger will make a large number of quality players available to recruit in the summer transfer market. [Al Duhail] will have a combined rooster of 75 players and will need to bring that number down to 30, so as many as 45 players will be on the market and this will improve the quality at the middle and lower end of the table”.
Finally, Al Duhail, even without the mega-money of the Interior Ministry and the army, will be a new superpower in Qatari football that has the potential to compete for the AFC Champions League and maybe one day bring Asia’s most valuable club trophy to Qatar. Al Sadd remain the only Qatari club to have won the Champions League in 2011 and the old Asian Club Championship in 1989. The club gets to choose from two coaches who played the game at the top level, with former Southampton & Marseille midfielder Djemal Belmadi now at the helm at Lekhwiya and ex-Parma, Inter and Monaco anchorman Sabri Lamouchi the top man at El Jaish. One of them will have to make way come the start of the new season, but whoever gets the job will have an embarrassment of riches to pick from, just think Nam Tae-hee, Romarinho, Yousef Msekni, Yousef El Arabi and Sardor Rashidov. Former Swansea midfielder Chico Flores and ex Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita are on the books too. And it is not just the foreign players; between them, Lekhwiya and El Jaish have on their books the bulk of the Qatari national team, from Moez Ali to Ahmed Moein to Karim Boudiaf and even Ahdaaf favourite, the eccentric Qassem Burhan.
One technicality that is yet to be addressed is what happens should Lekhwiya make it to the quarter-finals of the 2017 AFC Champions League, given that Asia’s premier competition spans two domestic seasons in Qatar. Another potential situation could do with both clubs actually qualifying to the 2018 edition of the Champions League. Lekhwiya have already been crowned QSL champions and have booked a spot, but El Jaish are also very much in contention, sitting at fourth, just three points behind third-placed Al Rayyan in the final qualification spot.
QSL and the AFC will surely find a way to address these challenges, but whichever way this merger goes, the name ‘Al Duhail’ will be on everyone’s lips throughout the summer and after the start of next season.