Qataris invest in English soccer through world’s oldest club
MANCHESTER, England —
Qatari money is coming to English football for the first time – at the unlikeliest of clubs.
The recipient is not a globally-recognized power but a tiny team playing seven divisions below the Premier League.
What Sheffield FC lacks in glamor it makes up for in status. From the powerhouses of Barcelona and Manchester United to amateur outfits worldwide, every football team emanates from this club in northern England’s steel city.
When Sheffield FC started playing 1857, there was no other team in the world.
Now, eager to be associated with the pioneers of football, 100,000 pounds ($153,000) is headed to Sheffield FC from the country hosting the Middle East’s first World Cup, The Associated Press has learned.
The enduring controversy surrounding the awarding of the 2022 tournament means the investment from the World Cup organizers could be interpreted as Sheffield FC being used by a country in need of a positive promotional platform.
But Sheffield FC said it only turned to Qatar after feeling snubbed after making direct approaches to the English Football Association and Premier League in the search for cash to fund a return to the site of its original home. Applications for grants have to go through the Football Foundation.
”This is not about Qatar muscling in,” Sheffield FC chairman Richard Tims told the AP. ”This is about having a catalyst that makes everyone sit up and take note … a partnership between the new kids on the block and the world’s first football club protecting the heritage of football.”
Qatar lacks the deep football heritage of England and it is trying to rapidly develop players for the World Cup and raise interest in the game among its tiny population.
Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general of Qatar’s World Cup supreme committee, has links to Sheffield after studying law at the city’s main university in the 1990s.
”Over the past few years since the (Sheffield FC) chairman first contacted us we have been working together to look for suitable ways in which we could lend our support,” Al Thawadi said. ”Our modest contribution is part of a first step on an important journey for the club of gaining wider support for the (stadium) project.”
After struggling to survive in a city dominated by Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United – former Premier League clubs now in the second and third tiers, respectively – Sheffield FC moved in 2001 into a 1,500-seat stadium in nearby Dronfield, a small village in the Derbyshire countryside.
Sheffield FC has bought the land on its original site at Olive Grove in Sheffield, but to relocate to its birthplace the team is raising money for the stadium itself.
”I hope that when the new ground and museum at Olive Grove is developed and schoolchildren from across the world visit and stand on the site where the beautiful game was created, they will be able to comprehend just how far the game travelled to every corner of the globe which resulted in the first Middle Eastern World Cup,” Al Thawadi said.
While Sheffield FC’s founders did not invent football, they do lay claim to being the first organization with the intention of playing the game.
Football was played throughout Britain with different rules until October 1857, with some games having 500 players and often ending in violence. Then two passionate cricketers, William Prest and Nathaniel Creswick, set about unifying the laws and Sheffield FC was born.
Prest and Creswick wrote the first set of rules, adopting free kicks and introducing a cross bar. To meet the cost of their current land, those rules were sold at auction in 2011 for 881,250 pounds ($1.4 million) to a buyer who remains anonymous.
For three years of its existence, Sheffield FC played among itself, including married men against unmarried men, until Sheffield persuaded the nearby Hallam cricket club to form a rival.
By 1862, 15 other clubs were established in the Sheffield area – famous for its steel industry – and organized themselves under the auspices of the Sheffield Club, the forerunner to the Football Association, which was formed in 1863.
In 1889, Sheffield FC helped to form Sheffield United, and Wednesday. Sheffield FC continued as a separate club and won its biggest honor – the national Amateur Cup – in 1904.
The team’s pulling power belies its lowly position in the modern game. Its most recent moment in the spotlight came around its 150th anniversary in 2007 when FIFA President Sepp Blatter attended a cathedral service and dinner in Sheffield and Pele attended a celebratory game against Inter Milan.
Being the world’s first club secured a place in history but did not secure its future.
The Sheffield FC men’s team plays in the amateur ranks of English football in the eighth tier but its 12-year-old women’s side is thriving.
Qatari cash has already enabled Sheffield Ladies to show the FA it had the required resources to gain promotion in May to the second tier. Now it is one step from the top-level Women’s Super League.
”We wanted to show our commitment to the club by helping support their promotion,” Al Thawadi said. ”I will be hoping to persuade others in the international football community to join in supporting this important mission to preserve this wonderful club and promote grassroots development.”