‘Follow the money’ – from Spain to Qatar

In football Qatar is sponsoring in Spain, but in handball they import the players and coaches

In football Qatar is sponsoring in Spain, but in handball they import the players and coaches

Spain did win the gold medals in the recent men’s World Championship, but at the club level the situation is clearly not so golden. Several teams in the top league have had to step down from the elite level and others have had to carry on with a much depleted squad. Players, not just ‘mercenaries’ from other countries but also Spanish top players, have fled the country in favor of clubs with a more stable financial situation. There is a limit for how much tolerance the players are willing to show, when salaries and bonuses are withheld for months or years.

As always, Barcelona and Madrid (Atletico) are in a class by themselves, being 13 and 8 points ahead of third-placed Ademar Leon when six games remain. And it was thought that these two clubs might be immune to the financial problems that are plaguing the other clubs, even though the recent ‘conversion’ of Ciudad Real to Atletico Madrid might suggest otherwise. Barcelona may indeed have the necessary resources, thanks to the direct affiliation with the football club, but Atletico had been rumored to be in bad shape.

Even so, it came as a surprise to many, when last month Danish star player Nikolaj Markussen announced that he was leaving Atletico for El Jaish in Qatar. And apparently it was not just a matter of frustration with the uncertainty at Atletico but also a matter of an offer from Qatar that was simply too good to refuse. Markussen is a 7ft tall top scorer with the Danish national team and thus a major acquisition. Some observers may recall that, in fact, Qatar sought to acquire Markussen last year, but then the specific purpose was to have him stay away from the 2013 World Championship and thus became eligible to play for the Qatar national team in 2015 when the next World Championship will be organized precisely in Qatar.

Another player who may become eligible for 2015 is Richard Kappelin, a Swedish goalkeeper who was Youth World Champion ten years ago, who just decided to give up on the Spanish club Aragon and move to the Al Gharafa club in Qatar. As Kappelin has not played for a Swedish national team for several years, he could be part of the Qatari plans to reinforce their national team for 2015.

And a real reinforcement in that endeavor was the very recent signing of Valero Rivera, who was the Spanish gold medal coach earlier this year. He will now take over the Qatari team instead. Perhaps Rivera felt that he already achieved the maximum honors for Spain and now wanted a new challenge, and perhaps the upcoming Spanish federation elections left him in an uncertain position. Not only will this help strengthen the Qatari team, but it may also help attract other good players who would be eligible to change national teams for 2015.

Naturally, a prestigious coach deserves a good assistant, even though perhaps he is capable of doing the job all by himself. So as an interesting coincidence, a very experienced top player, albeit without real coaching experience, happened to be available and looking for such an opportunity. I am talking about Rivera’s old friend, Inaki Urdangarin, former captain of the Spanish national team, and nowadays better known as the Duke of Palma de Mallorca, and husband of Princess Cristina. You may recall that I have had reason to write about him before, such as when he was an almost neighbor here in the Washington D.C. area some years ago. But you may wonder why someone of his stature would want to move to Qatar as an assistant coach!?

The answer is also in his case: follow the money. As I have previously written, the Duke has managed to get himself into some legal difficulties lately, being accused of graft and misuse of funds in connection with his management of a non-profit foundation. The matter still remains to be decided, but the Duke has had to pay a very substantial amount of bail money to remain at liberty and free to leave the country. So he may need a good income, as it does not appear that his father-in-law is prepared to come to his rescue. On the contrary, the affair is obviously a major embarrassment for the royal family, especially in recent time when an ambitious judge wanted to drag the Princess into the matter. So perhaps it suits all parties if the Duke is somewhat ‘out of sight’ for a while, and able to earn some money.

An interesting coincidence is that the 2015 World Championship is not the most immediate IHF event being hosted by Qatar. In October this year, the IHF election Congress will be held in Qatar, which is obviously a very comfortable territory for the IHF President who presumably is eager to be reelected. While the Congress is formally organized by the IHF, it obviously does not hurt to be reassured of the support of the wealthy Qatari in connection with a reelection campaign.