Qatar a beacon of Touch in the Persian Gulf

July 15, 2021 @ 0:00 UTC

QTouch is taking steps to re-establish the strong position the sport was in before the pandemic. Pre-COVID-19, Touch was the fastest growing sport in Qatar.

Touch in Qatar has been strongly influenced by expatriates. A loosely structured form of the game was first played by ex-pat rugby players to warm up at training. An influx of Australians and New Zealanders into the capital city Doha in 2010 led to an improvement in the level of play. What we now refer to as FIT Touch was adopted and a local competition began. 

In 2013 the present-day QTouch CEO Samuel Rico registered QTouch with FIT as the official Touch association of the gulf nation. Current QTouch President Omran al-Sherwai came on board in 2016 and according to Samuel Rico “Since his arrival Touch has grown in numbers and popularity.” 

Player numbers increased quickly, “At its peak, QTouch became the fastest growing sport in Qatar with 5000 players in 2019 (men, women, boys and girls), a far cry from its humble beginnings of a few mates throwing a ball around. QTouch, prior to COVID-19, boasted 48 teams from various clubs and nationalities including 16 Sri Lankan teams, 24 French teams, 6 mixed nationality teams, 8 Rugby teams, Iranian, Indian and Lebanese teams,” said Samuel Rico. 

Pandemic reality check

The arrival of COVID-19 was a heavy blow for QTouch according to Samuel, “Coronavirus not only stopped Touch play but forced ex-pat families to leave the country in droves because they were put off work or their companies shut down. This left the QTouch family with a huge player deficit. The exact loss in numbers cannot be realized until competition resumes. Some sponsors who would normally help at our events have since closed shop and/or left the country.” 

The nation of 3 million people has been relatively successful in its fight against COVID-19. There have been 223,000 people infected and 599 deaths up till now, and despite a surge of cases in April, the daily infection figures are now trending down. More than half of the population has received at least one dose of vaccine already. 

Even though the course of the pandemic can be unpredictable, the strong action of the Qatari government in combating the virus does give some cause for optimism that the situation is improving. Samuel Rico is hopeful that play can resume “sometime in September or October.”

QTouch seeks improved relations with rugby

QTouch managed to achieve its remarkable pre-pandemic growth despite many other challenges. As the sport grew it struggled to gain access to appropriate training and playing facilities and has received no government support. Due to the high participation rate of ex-pats coming into and leaving the country the sport is also subject to a high player turnover rate. 

QTouch has at times had a challenging relationship with rugby. Many National Touch Organisations (NTOs) in emerging countries have cultivated a mutually beneficial relationship with rugby. QTouch has collaborated with rugby, according to Samuel Rico, “Junior development was a huge drawcard leading up to the Malaysia Youth World Cup. We had teamed up with the rugby federation and infiltrated into selective English schools. We managed to coordinate training and summer camps.”

There is a view in the leadership of rugby in Qatar that QTouch should fall under the auspices of the 15-man game. QTouch on the other hand would like Touch to be accepted as an independent sport with its own identity. The remarkable success in the growth of Touch before the pandemic could have been viewed as a threat by some. Regardless, Samuel Rico is hoping for a return to “Better cooperation later this year.”

Touch gains media coverage in Qatar

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the complete suspension of all sports in Qatar. QTouch has endeavoured to keep its members connected, according to Samuel Rico, “With total lockdowns and social distancing finding new ways to engage players and clubs is difficult. However, with FIT’s innovative online courses QTouch managed to bring some life back into the sport during these lockdowns.” 

The participation of QTouch in a FIT online referees course earlier this year received some terrific coverage in the Gulf Times newspaper recently. This publication is the pre-eminent English language newspaper in Qatar and the article extensively quoted President of QTouch Omran al- Sherwai thanking FIT for running the course and congratulating the four new referees who successfully gained accreditation (Samuel Rico, Shashi Palaniwel, Nihan Abeysena and Andrew Jansen.) The article acknowledges course facilitators Ian Matthew (FIT Referees Commission Chair) and Chris Dolahenty (FIT Referees Commission member), and thanks Bianca Arco from FIT Member Relations Commission (Asia) for organising the course that was attended by 230 participants from all 12 Asian National Touch Organisations. 

QTouch striving to compete on the international stage

If Touch in Qatar can regain the momentum it had before the pandemic it could over time become a force at international competitions. Touch was the fastest growing sport in Qatar before COVID-19 which is a remarkable achievement. A strong resurgence of the sport in the next couple of years should see Qatar become a formidable Touch nation. QTouch CEO Samuel Rico is excited about the future, “QTouch looks forward to participating at all international events. We are committed to providing appropriate domestic competitions for clubs enabling teams to develop their player’s pathways to international levels.”