A modest ground of 2,000 capacity now hosts an exhibition celebrating football history
If there’s one figure who personifies the World Cup, it’s Pelé. Three years after the defining image of his career, being carried shoulder high across the vast Azteca superdome wearing a sombrero amid the celebratory tickertape of Brazil’s 1970 victory, he came to Qatar to play at a tiny ground of 2,000 capacity.
In the heart of Qatar’s capital, near the market quarter of Al Souq and historic hub of Old Al Ghanim, the Doha Sports Stadium is currently hosting an exhibition covering the development of the local game. Qatar Football History focuses on the visit of Pelé’s club Santos here on Valentine’s Day, 1973, the modest infrastructure he would have found back then and the fruits of the legacy he left behind.
Located where Al Dostour Street meets Jabr Bin Mohammed, the display is on show until December 19 and free to enter. Sadly now in very poor health, Pelé will not be able to pay it a visit.
The Doha Sports Stadium contained the first, and for many years only, grass pitch in the city. Before its opening in the early 1960s, leading to a first local league solely staged here from 1963, games in Doha were casual affairs played out on sand.
By the time Pelé arrived, local clubs such as Al Arabi and Santos’ opponents Al Ahli had been in place for several years, under a different guise but with their own identity. Doha, then a city of 90,00 people, was the capital of a country recently freed from British protectorate status.
Playing his last full season at Santos before his Cosmos adventure, the Brazilian superstar was on yet another lucrative world tour with Santos. Squeezing in Doha between similar exhibition matches in Kuwait and Bahrain, the iconic Brazilian club earned $40,000 for playing here, a sound investment considering the positive effects that would ripple out for later generations. (For their part, Santos received $100,000 from Kuwait and $75,000 from Bahrain.)
They faced local side Al Ahli with an attack spearheaded by Pelé and another 1970 World Cup star, Edu. Both Brazilian internationals scored early in the game before the visitors took their foot off the gas and eased to a 3-0 win.
Santos sources give the attendance figure at 12,000 but exactly 2,000 spectators would have paid their 30 and 50 riyals that day as that was the official capacity. Tickets had sold out long before Pelé graced the turf and many Qataris still remember scaling the fence to see the great man play.
Soon after Santos left town, as the current exhibition goes on to illustrate, Qatar began planning the Khalifa Sports City Stadium in order to host the Arabian Gulf Cup in 1976. This bigger arena superseded the Doha Sports Stadium and became the stage for major international sporting events over the next five decades. Sports City became the Aspire Zone, Qatar’s complex of sporting excellence, and the Khalifa International Stadium grew out of the original Sports City to co-host the 2022 World Cup.
While not a major football power by any means, Qatar now wields huge influence in the global game – 50 years after the whole country had but one tiny football ground to its name.