FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Krisztian Nemeth has played for 11 clubs in six countries since beginning his pro career in 2005, while also earning nearly three dozen caps for Hungary at the highest levels of international soccer.
Even so, Nemeth's 2016-17 season with Qatari club Al-Gharafa SC was a bit off the beaten path, even for him.
Although Nemeth had visited the Middle East before on a trip to Dubai, he approached his first long-term stay in the region with an open mind.
“I was surprised and expected different things, but I mean that in a positive way,” Nemeth, now a New England Revolution forward, told MLSsoccer.com last month. “The country, you can see their vision and how they're organized a lot around the World Cup.”
Nemeth, of course, was referring to how Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and how the investment in those facilities has filtered into the pro league.
For example, Nemeth and his teammates got their physicals at Aspetar, a orthopaedic and sports medicine hospital. And across the country, stadiums are also being built to host the tournament's 64 games. Nemeth also recalled visiting a completed World Cup stadium complete with the cooling technology that is supposed to protect players and fans alike from the scorching heat come 2022.
The technology is designed to take temperatures of up to 110 degrees farenheit down to around 70 on the field. Relating it to Major League Soccer, Nemeth joked it was like the difference between playing the Houston Dynamo at home or on the road.
A view of the construction work at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, March 26, 2016 / Reuters
“It's almost like Houston weather during the summer,” Nemeth said. “Something like that, or Dallas. But it's not too big an issue in the Qatar league because only four or five games are played when it's super hot.”
Heat often delayed Nemeth's team's training until 8 or 9 pm at night. Because of that, Nemeth would often spend most of the day at his apartment on The Pearl, a four million square meter artificial island where many foreign nationals live, or at shopping malls and restaurants, avoiding the outdoors for any prolonged period of time. And since Qatar is a Muslim-majority country, Nemeth had to adjust the “little parts” of his day to accommodate for things like midday prayers, to be respectful of their culture.
Nemeth was hardly alone as a foreigner though. Qatari top-flight teams are allowed four foreign players. The Qatar Football Association, ahead of the 2022 World Cup, has even helped expedite the passport process for African, European and Brazilian players so they can play for the national team.
Nemeth's teammates included Vladimir Weiss (Slovakia), Johnson Kendrick (Brazilian) and Han Kook-Young (South Korea).
But for someone such as Nemeth – who scored 16 goals across all competitions for Sporting Kansas City in 2015, and finished with a goal and assist for the Revs in six games – playing in Qatar was a step down.
“The league is not a high level or similar to MLS,” Nemeth said. “It's difficult some because the players aren't as high a quality as you'd expect, so as one of the foreign guys you have to be a better player. You have to lead them to win the games.”
Helping Nemeth and the other internationals at Al-Gharafa was Portuguese manager Pedro Caixinha, who also managed Santos Laguna in Liga MX. Caixinha left Nemeth impressed by his organizational skills, and would move on to storied Scottish side Rangers following his time in Qatar.
But there were times when Nemeth could tell the soccer culture in Qatar wasn’t quite where the federation wanted it to be. The bigger clubs would have upwards of 5,000 fans in attendance, though crowds of “400, 500” people were common, too.
“This game, we play it for the fans,” Nemeth said. “With Qatar, maybe because of the weather or something else, there just weren't a lot of fans. That's what amazed me. They have to work on that part."