Faith and Football: Meeting Mazrouah FC
It’s been just over a month since I visited Mazrouah FC, a Qatari grassroots football team set up by migrant workers from across Africa. After resisting the urge to publish the story to social media immediately, I’ve let the experience and memories marinate long enough in my mind to now be able to share it with you.
I first came across Mazrouah FC and their story in a quick piece written by The Guardian’s Nick Ames at the back end of March (I’ll share the link to his work in the bio). Inspired by what I had read about the players and their goals, I decided I need to pay the team a visit and lend any support I could to a group of ballers I now consider my brothers.
I headed to Qatar during a special time. With the post-World Cup honeymoon over, I was keen to see the legacy left behind by the tournament and how, if at all, that had benefitted the very people who had worked so hard to put on the show. I was also going to be in town on the weekend of Eid al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan, so wanted to learn more about how Mazrouah’s players had coped with fasting in the heat while training up to six times a week.
Based out of Umm Salal, a sprawling complex of dormitories and housing blocks home to migrant labourers and nestled in a stretch of desert 20 kilometres outside of Doha; Mazrouah FC was founded in January 2022 by Kenyan Robert Otiato. Robert serves as the team’s coach and goalkeeper and initially his aim with the team was to provide his players with a fun way to relax body and mind after long work days. Since then, Mazrouah grown into much more. While interviewing him after one of the team’s training matches, Robert was keen to explain how Mazrouah FC provides a home away from home for ballers from across Africa.
Street 1220, a short walk from Mazrouah's training pitch
“We have players from all over Africa. They come from Ghana, Namibia, Kenya, Uganda, Gambia and Sudan. We even have people from countries like Nigeria texting us asking us how they can join, what they can do to be a part of Mazrouah FC. We want to help people from Africa.”
The trip to Mazrouah’s training ground from where I was staying in Al Wakrah, would take me 45 minutes in a taxi, side skirting Doha and its monolithic skyscrapers that pierce the hazy horizon like a Blade Runner 2049 desert mirage.
As Zeeshan the Uber driver switched lanes for the exit to Umm Salal, I could see the sense of his confusion as he checked his phone to see if he had the right destination. This sandy expanse, home to migrant workers from countries like Afghanistan, Uganda, Ghana and Kenya, was a world away from the tourist spots he’d taken other travellers to during the World Cup.
In the run up to last year’s World Cup, the government’s PR teams went into overdrive, working hard to make sure this version of the country, where thousands of labourers live in dorms in the middle of nowhere, was not readily available to the public. Zeeshan himself had spent the drive over, recommending with good intentions, activities he thought I’d be interested in; activities snowboarding down sand dunes or visiting the Villaggio Mall in Doha, a huge shopping centre that boasts a fake sky. That all sounded alright, but I’m always going to take the option of playing football in 36C heat at an obscure location over that stuff any day.
“What are you doing here brother? Do you want me to wait?” Zeeshan asked as we pulled up onto Street 1220, the location I’d agreed to meet Omar, Mazrouah’s captain. “I’m here to play football”, I answered, doing nothing to soothe his scepticism. As Zeeshan drove off, Omar came walking up to meet me.
Omar’s one of those characters you instantly warm to. He’s tall, softly spoken, yet assured and charismatic; a natural leader. Having arrived in Qatar a few years ago, he grew up playing football in his native Kenya, turning out for Miritini Combined in the 4th tier. An attacking midfielder, he floats about with grace and power, bringing the ball under his spell and rarely misplacing a pass- important traits when you play on a training pitch like Mazrouah’s, as I would soon find out why.
On the pitch with Mazrouah FC
Training, led by Robert, takes place on a rocky and dusty clearing, a stone’s throw away from the dorms the players call home. Shared with a group of Afghan and Pakistani cricketers, at each end of the pitch are two goals made of wooden poles tied together with bands. In each goal mouth, several layers of carpet have been laid to allow the goalkeepers to dive without heading back in with bruises all over. The conditions are not easy but the team admirably make do with what they have, each paying subs monthly to help keep the club running.
“Every member of the team has to contribute 50QAR (£11) each month. This way we’re able to buy the balls, buy the bibs and our jerseys which we print in Kenya. With the contribution we’re also able to travel to games and pay for the medical kit.”
As you’d expect in the desert, the weather doesn’t make training any easier. The players are committed to achieving their goals and train 6 times a week as a result, having done so during Ramadan. While temperatures in Qatar are at their lowest between December and April, they still regularly reach over 33C, making Mazrouah’s resolve during the Holy month all the more impressive.
“During fasting, it was very hard because we lacked energy. But because of our passion for football we really tried. We didn’t have much time to train, only like 30 minutes, then after the Adhan we would break our fast. Playing under the heat is very tough. Most other teams rent pitches and train during the night but for us it’s not easy because the prices are very high. Inshallah, we don’t know what might happen in future but we’d love someone to sponsor us and help us.”
As the players got ready to train and I took my camera out to capture the scene, Omar asked if I would like to take part in the session. Not one to refuse a chance to play ball, I quickly laced up and jogged towards the huddle being formed by the players. Robert was in the middle leading the team talk, instructing everyone on the drills they’d be working on that afternoon. After introducing myself and thanking the team for their hospitality, the briefing was concluded with a prayer. As someone who is religious myself, experiencing football and faith coming together in this was refreshing and I could certainly see the benefit praying had in helping everyone get in the zone ahead of training.
The team complete competitive shuttle runs
The session, watched by friends on the sidelines, consisted of a series of competitive drills aimed not only at developing fitness but fostering a deep sense of togetherness. Under Robert’s leadership the players are strengthened physically and spiritually. While they may be a grassroots team for now, Robert takes his role incredibly seriously and applies himself to each session with total dedication. He’s a natural leader of men and it was clear to see that the players trust him to take them to the next level. For Robert the dream is to lead his team out of the desert and up the Qatari football pyramid and beyond.
“We have talent here and our aim is to go beyond this place. We want to provide a link for people from Africa to Qatar, Europe and beyond. We want to go beyond this place because we have so many ideas. We want to go around the world and help people. We come from humble families and some of us are bread winners. Our families look up to us for the work that we do.”
The team certainly has talent. Like Omar, many of the players have played at decent level back home. Centre back Daniel Yeboah, who goes by the nickname Ability, used to play his football for Debest FC in Ghana’s Division 3 while Robert himself featured for Egerton FC in Kenya’s Division 2.
While lack of talent is not an issue, there are hurdles in the team’s way. Omar has dreams of going pro in Qatar but stupid rules mean that you have to live in the country for four years before you’re eligible to play for a senior side. The cost of playing grassroots football in Qatar is also prohibitively high. Robert wants his side to join the Qatar Community Football League (QCFL) but with the joining fee recently hiked up to 4000QAR (£882) from 2000QAR (£441) and only 500 (£110) of that raised so far, it remains to be seen whether the team will be able to get involved come the start of the new season in September.
Following the drills, the team play a match
After about 25 minutes of drills, Robert called time on the shuttle runs and split everyone into two teams. The pressure was now on. I was told we’d be playing a ninety minute match and I was desperate not to embarrass myself in front of my hosts, which considering the playing surface was a highly likely outcome. While it felt like I was skating on ice thanks to the blades on my boots, the standard of football on display was high. Following his travels in Rwanda, my friend Lamine had noted how he thought the dodgy playing surfaces there helped improve the players’ technical ability. I could definitely see that being the case with Mazrouah FC.
Before the game, Robert and his assistant Kevin had set both teams up with game plans to follow. Formations and tactics were followed strictly and I struggled to keep up and deal with the unpredictable bounce of the ball. Playing up front, I was given a taste of the frustrations around having to share the pitch with the cricket players. Having sprinted free of who I thought was my marker, I scanned to check where he was only to realise it was one of the bowlers preparing a deadly spin bowl just outside our box.
At halftime I was hooked off for Derrick Nyakundi AKA Pogba, and grateful for the breather, I whipped my camera back out to take some photos of the game. The scene was beautiful. I had only planned this trip 3 days before and here I was in the middle of nowhere sharing in the spirit of football in the most unlikely of places with people I had just met. With the game over and the sun beginning to set, Robert called everyone back into a huddle.
The environment at Mazrouah FC is positive and encouraging and that showed when post match, a number of players spoke up to analyse their own performances and tell the rest of the group where they thought they needed to improve. The next day, Mazrouah would be playing Mesaieed FC, a team based 40km away just south of Doha. They were expected to be a real test for the boys so Robert was keen for his players to take away learnings from the training match. As each player took his turn to analyse the match, the moments of self reflection were interrupted by rounds of applause (even I was clapped for my 45 mins on the pitch), further evidence of the strong bond shared between this group of ballers. With the man of the match picked and the closing prayer said, I knew that in Mazrouah FC I had made friends for life.
Mazrouah FC, my brothers in football
Read Nick's Guardian piece on Mazrouah FC here