DOHA, September 14- His last competitive match was in front of more than 70,000 fans but Xavi Hernandez made his Qatar Stars League debut on Sunday watched by a crowd of just 2,253.
For a former world player of the year who has won 28 trophies, including the World Cup, two European Championships, and whose last performance for Barcelona was in June’s Champions League victory, a sweaty night in downtown Doha may not have seemed like one of the most spectacular nights of a glittering career.
For Xavi’s new team though, Al Sadd, it was a perfect start to the season, winning 4-0 away in a one-sided clash against newly-promoted Mesaimeer, emphasising their determination to go one better than second place last season.
Afterwards, he brushed aside questions about himself, declaring only that the result mattered.
“It was positive to win,” said Xavi.
“We had a lot of chances, we have a good team and play good football.”
His new team even have a good chance of adding to his large collection of medals and winning the league, he added.
But the three points aside and however humble he stayed, the match was largely about one thing: Xavi.
The QSL’s most high-profile and expensive signing had drawn a disparate crowd of football fans among Qatar’s large expatriate population from as far afield as Burkina Faso, Uganda, Iran, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nepal as well as many locals.
“It’s my first time watching a match here but I came because of Xavi. I support Barcelona,” Sadat, a 29-year-old Ugandan who works in the Gulf as a security guard told AFP.
“It is my first time to see him play.”
Sitting close by among a noisy bank of fans — some singing, some banging drums, others watching intently while snacking on sunflower seeds at the Al-Araby stadium — was Arrisala, a 23-year-old from Mombasa.
He too had come watch to the Catalan playmaker.
“We are happy to be here, it’s very exciting,” he said.
“We want to see all the good players in Qatar.”
The crowd did not have to wait long to cheer their hero.
Xavi earned his first assist in the QSL in the 11th minute, floating a free kick onto the head of Jung Soo Lee to put Al Sadd a goal ahead.
Their lead was never in doubt and they were so dominant that Al Sadd’s goalkeeper, Saad Abdulla Aldosari, who had so little to do he could have been added to the official attendance figure, even shunned an official water break in the second half as the temperature reached 36 degrees Celsius (97 farenheit).
Wearing his trademark number six but in unfamiliar white and black, Xavi’s best spell came just after the second half, when he went close with a free-kick, a header and then one of his trademark defence-splitting passes, presented Musab Keder Kamal with an easy chance.
But the right-bank fluffed his big moment and pushed his shot into the side netting.
– “Xavi! Xavi! Xavi!” –
It mattered little. The game was won and the crowd won over.
When he went to take a corner in the dying minutes, the crowd started chanting, “Xavi! Xavi! Xavi!”
He waved and they cheered some more.
Xavi, who is on a two year contract, is not the first big name to play in the domestic league of the 2022 World Cup hosts as Qatar tries to raise its footballing profile.
Real Madrid’s Raul also played for Al Sadd and current managers include Gianfranco Zola.
But that has left Qatari crowds wanting even more big names.
Iranian English teacher Ali, watching on with his son in a Barcelona shirt said he wanted to watch “Messi or Neymar”.
“It is one of my dreams seeing Xavi play here, so maybe I can dream of other players,” he said.