Ahmed Al Shaabi
– Interview by Nebojsa Popovic
To some who watched the 24th Men’s Handball World Championship – held in Qatar in January this year – the host nation’s progress to the final and eventual silver medal may have come as a surprise.
But it was certainly no surprise to those who worked tirelessly off the court to realise that dream – none more so than President of the Qatar Handball Association, Ahmed Mohammed Al Shaabi, who can count the national team’s remarkable success as the result of more than 40 years of personal dedication to the sport.
A former Qatar national team player himself, Mr Al Shaabi has been fundamental to the long-term development of Handball in Qatar, building on a strong tradition in the country, supported by the pillars of passion, knowledge, friendship and team spirit.
His work elevating Qatar to a major player in world handball and the corresponding success of the national teams (both senior and junior) is testament to the adage that hard work is the main driving force behind sporting success.
The president is not finished yet either, after their standout performance at the World Championship, he is now targeting Olympic qualification for the national team.
How did you feel when Qatar won the silver medal in the 2015 Handball World Championship?
I was very happy – it was the first time a country from our region had won a medal in the Handball World Championship. Not only this, never before have we seen an Arab, African or Pan-American national team achieve such a high position. Historically, it has always been two European teams in the final, so Qatar reaching the final was a dream come true.
Could you explain to us your personal history in handball and how you became President of the Qatar Handball Federation?
Similar to many children here in Qatar, I started playing handball at school. I continued to train and was selected for the national team, for which I played from 1972 to 1976. In 1977, I left Qatar to study in the USA, where I did not have the opportunity to play handball. When I returned home, I resumed playing handball for Al Saad Sports Club. At the end of my playing career, my dedication to the team and love for the sport led me to become manager of Al Saad. I worked under the leadership of His Highness Sheikh Tamim Al Thani who was the club President at the time. He is well known for his passion for handball. During that period, the club achieved its greatest success; winning the Asian Handball Champions League five times in 6 years and beating SC Magdeburg in the final to win the IHF Super Globe in 2002. The same year, I shifted to the Qatar Handball Federation, where I became President in 2008.
Could you tell us about the progress of Qatar’s handball team through to the World Championship?
Qatar’s first team has participated five times in the finals stage of the World Championship. Our cadets team has played in the World Championship seven times. In addition to this, I should mention our junior national team, which has taken part in the World Championship eight times. Our junior and cadet teams are also the current champions of Asia. We are very proud of the achievements of our young players. As you can see, we work very hard to develop handball in the country. We follow our junior and cadet teams closely. We have a strong belief that if these teams are winners, the first team is more likely to be successful.
Your federation is seen as prosperous and successful in the world of handball. What do you believe is important in managing a successful federation? To what do you attribute this success?
Firstly, to be successful, you must be passionate about your job, or in my case, passionate about handball. Having played the game too is an advantage. I strongly believe that handball is the best sport in the world. Secondly, support is important. Our Federation has the full support of the government, the Qatar Olympic Committee and His Highness Sheikh Tamim Al Thani. Over the years, I have built strong links with the worldwide handball family, including the Asian, European and International Handball Federations. Also, we are delighted to have immense support from the people of Qatar too, handball is one of the most popular sports in country.
This year’s silver medal was the result of many years of hard work and disappointment, could you tell us what went into getting the Qatar team all the way to the final?
Yes, we failed many times. Despite our many attempts prior to this, 2003 was the first time we progressed through qualifying to reach the finals stage of the World Championship. After this we qualified to the World Championship in Tunisia and Germany but unfortunately failed to make it to those in Croatia and Sweden. After missing out on those championships, we decided to invest a lot more in our team. We hired the best handball coach in the world, Valero Rivera and carefully selected our technical staff and medical team. Our players have grown as a result of this planning 10 to 15 years in advance. We all worked with the same goal in mind, established good relations with other federations and maintained the belief that we would achieve our goal – to be among the leading handball teams in the world.
People say that you are always at the Federation. Is this true?
It is true. In the morning, I work from 7am to 2pm as the Manager of Administration and Finance at the Qatar Central Bank. In the afternoon I work every day from 4pm until 10pm at the Federation. I constantly visit the camps and our handball teams around Qatar.
And your family, do they support you given your long absences spent at the Federation or with the teams?
My family knows that I am working for my country, for my people, and they see the success. That is why they give me their full support in my work. I am thankful for that.
In the past, when a player was injured, you were obliged to have them treated in other countries. Now, Aspetar is your primary choice to care for players. Can you comment on this?
Previously we struggled to find the right doctors and surgeons to treat our players. We would send our players to Bahrain, Europe and to the US. Sometimes the treatment was successful, but we experienced some complications as well. Now, we send our players to Aspetar where we find the best surgeons and physical therapists to have our players return to play in the best shape and much sooner than we used to expect. We are lucky to have Aspetar as our medical partner.
Qatar is the leader of development of handball in the Middle East. What is the future of handball here?
There is a bright future for handball in the region. It is becoming more and more popular, passion for the sport is growing. I have one more wish: to qualify for Olympic Games. This is our most important goal at the moment. This year in November, 12 teams from Asia will compete for just one place at the Olympic Games. Our aim is to be the team that qualifies. After that, if we qualify, we must fight for Olympic success. That is our ultimate dream.
Do you have any other comments?
Our aim is to have our nation believe in Qatar’s place in the world of handball. We saw the support grow throughout the Championship earlier this year, with stadiums full. We look forward to the people of Qatar’s continual support and growing passion for handball.
I would like to express our sincere thanks and appreciation for the support we have received from His Highness Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, His Excellency Sheikh Joaan Bin Hamad Al Thani – President of Qatar Olympic Committee, His Excellency Sheikh Abdulla Bin Nasser Al Thani – Prime Minister and all of the Qatari clubs.
Nebojsa Popovic M.D., Ph.D.