Wesley Sneijder learning ropes of Qatar Stars League from Xavi
Fans in Qatar may still be coming to terms with the fact that the national team will not be at the 2018 World Cup -- they didn't come close to qualifying -- but there is some comfort. Four years before the 2022 edition comes to the country, there is a chance to see two of the finest midfielders of the modern game up close and personal. In January Wesley Sneijder joined Al Gharafa, thereby joining Xavi in the Qatar Stars League.
"Xavi is a legend," said Sneijder in January before the two met on the pitch in Doha. "I have played against him when he was with Barcelona and the Spanish national team. It is always good to have great players in a team."
Just as the Dutchman is starting out on his Middle Eastern adventure, Xavi -- part of the 2010 World Cup winning Spain team that defeated Sneijder and the Netherlands in the final in South Africa -- is getting close to the exit door with Al Sadd.
In November 2017, Xavi told Spanish newspaper Sport that the end was near as his powers were fading. "I think my career has come towards its end, there's been a descent... Now I see myself being more tired, it's harder to recover, it will surely be my last year of being a footballer."
If there is a descent, it's coming from a very high place. In Sneijder's second game in the Middle East, the 33-year-old had the pleasure of renewing acquaintances and remembering how good the Spain midfielder was.
Al Sadd strolled to a 4-0 win, with Xavi quietly pulling the strings. So good was he on the day he turned 38 that he was rewarded with the birthday bumps -- not at the end of the game but after his role in the third goal, a delightful through-ball to split the home defence.
Though it served as another demonstration of the skills Xavi still possessed, it was also a perfect lesson for Sneijder as to what a big-name import can and should do on and off the pitch in West Asia.
Xavi has done almost everything right as an import. He joined Al Sadd in 2015, has performed on the pitch and is now the captain of the country's most successful club. He is also a mentor to the younger players and has talked of going into coaching. Should he wish it, there will be opportunities in Qatar.
There is unfinished business first, though. The Barcelona legend has won a World Cup, club World Cups, two European Championships, four UEFA Champions Leagues, eight La Liga titles and plenty more. He has done alright in the Middle East too, lifting the Emir of Qatar Cup, the Qatar Crown Prince Cup and the Sheikh Jassim Cup. What he has not done yet is win the Qatar Stars League.
The most recent of Al Sadd's 13 domestic championships came in 2013. With five games of the season remaining, the team is two points off the top. Helping to deliver title number 14 would be a perfect way for Xavi to say goodbye.
There might yet be more to come despite Xavi's comments, as there are moves to get the player to extend his stay. This is helped by the reduction in the number of games from this season due to the league shrinking from 14 to 12 teams.
The AFC Champions League might also make a difference. The continental tournament is just getting going as the Qatari season draws to a close. The quarterfinals start in August and according to reports in Spain, the club has told Xavi that he can stay as long as he wants.
As long as Al Sadd are in the competition they won in 2011, then Xavi might stay. If Al Sadd gets wins in the two opening games then the knockout stage at minimum looks to be a real possibility.
Sneijder's job is a little different. Al Gharafa have faded since the golden days of the previous decade, which ended with a hat-trick of titles. The Cheetahs have become a mid-table entity, as they are again this year. There will be no title this season but there could be improvements next, when Sneijder will be able to contribute over a full campaign rather than joining halfway through.
Being out of the domestic running might help in Asian competition. Sneijder scored to guide Al Gharafa through the qualification playoffs. He did so again in the opening group game, which ended in defeat at the hands of Al Jazira in Abu Dhabi, followed by a win on Matchday two. Getting to the knockout stage would be seen as success.
"I want to bring my experience to Al Gharafa and share that experience and knowledge with the young players of this squad," the former Real Madrid and Inter midfielder said upon his arrival. "I have heard that there is a plenty of young talent in this club. I want to help them to improve their qualities."
These are words right out of the Xavi playbook. It's not only the locals that can learn from the Spanish legend.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.