The Qatari enigma
The Qatari National Team is almost unknown on the world stage. But this lack of experience could also be their biggest asset in a very competitive group.
This small country from the Persian Gulf is a newcomer at the world basketball level - just as much as they were in Asia only a few months ago. Before 2000, Qatar had appeared only once in the Asian Championships, finishing 16th in 1991. The emergence of Qatari basketball really started in 1996, when the Junior National Team won the silver medal in the Asian Championships for Junior Men. They repeated the feat two years later, qualifying for the 1999 FIBA U19 World Championship in Portugal. Qatar finished a decent 10th place at that event, and scouts from all over the world discovered Qatar's best player - Yaseen Ismail. The forward finished second in the MVP voting - behind future NBA star Andrei Kirilenko of Russia - after posting 25 points and 12 rebounds per game. In 2000, the same generation dominated the Asian Championship for Young Men and won the gold medal. The following year, they finished 10th again at the FIBA U21 World Championship 2001 in Japan. The Qatari senior team was similar to the junior’s squad - built around a nucleus formed by Ismail, guard Daoud Mosa Daoud and centre Hashim Zaidan Zaidan. The 2.08 m centre led the tournament in blocked shots and finished third in rebounds. In 2001, the golden generation made its debut with the Senior National Team and qualified for the Asian Championships for the first time since 1991. Despite being dominated by South Korea and Syria, Qatar eventually defeated Japan to finish fifth. That was a promising performance for the emergent Qatari team.
The hiring of American coach Joey Stiebing set the second stage of the Qatari basketball’s rise. The former University of New Orleans head coach provided discipline and a college basketball style of play, featuring hustling defence that fits particularly well with the physical abilities of his players. Stiebling's Qatari squad is full of very athletic players, mirroring more African players than Asian ones. Under Stiebing's tutelage, Qatar play a solid defence backed up by efficient shooting. They also show a lot of energy and aggressiveness at both ends of the floor. The head coach took advantage of some minor Asian competitions to create team chemistry and test a number of players and bring depth to his squad. Still, despite not using their best players, Qatar won the FIBA Stankovic Cup in November 2004; the Gulf Cup in December 2004 and the West Asian Games in December 2005. The Qatar National Team was not the only one to benefit from the rise of basketball in the country. Some of the nation's best players, led by national superstar Ismail, helped Al Rayyan Sports Club to capture the Asian Club Championship twice - in 2003 and 2005.
Last summer, Qatar hosted the 2005 FIBA Asia Championships and wrote history. They reached the semi-finals once again but were beaten by Lebanon. Nevertheless, they qualified for the 2006 FIBA World Championship by knocking off South Korea to take the bronze medal.
This is the first time that a Persian Gulf state has qualified for the World Championships. And despite a draw which has placed them in a very tough group with Brazil, Greece, Lithuania, Australia and Turkey, Qatar want to make the Gulf region proud.
Stiebing's nucleus of the golden generation is Ismail, who is 26 years old, and 24-year-old Daoud. Talented young players have joined that core, including point guard Saad Abdulrahman Ali (21 years old) and forwards Khalid Suliman Abdi (19), Ali Turki Ali (24) and Erfan Ali Saeed (22). All National Team members play in Qatar and obviously will miss experience on the world stage despite playing in several competitions in Asia.
Another missing element is height, with no player taller than 2.08 metres. Like Zaidan, the team's tallest player, Qatar's front court players focus on their defensive assignments. The problem is that Stiebling's offence is not very well balanced.
That’s why Qatar have struggled against teams with strong big men, such as China's Yao Ming (2.28 m), South Korea's Ha Seung-Jin (2.21 m) and Joe Vogel (2.12 m) of Lebanon. To resolve this issue, the Qatari Basketball Federation has been in contact with Jabari Smith, a seven footer by American origin who played briefly in the NBA. Al Rayyan’s American point guard Ben Walker could also be naturalized and join the national team to strengthen the backcourt.
Qatari fans do not see the 2006 FIBA World Championship as just an accomplishment. More so, they see it as an opportunity to gain experience in international competition. The squad is still very young and could qualify for an international competition again in the future. Then they will be more mature and competitive.