Olympics: Mercenaries find it 'hard' to fight for Qatar, whose handball imports are making waves

Bassel Alrayes (left) of Qatar and Kresimir Kozina of Croatia in action at the men's preliminary Group A match at the Future Arena on Aug 7, 2016.
Bassel Alrayes (left) of Qatar and Kresimir Kozina of Croatia in action at the men's preliminary Group A match at the Future Arena on Aug 7, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - It was hard, according to Croatian back Marko Bagaric, but the Olympic dream can make people do strange things.

Bagaric's team beat his homeland Croatia 30-23 in a stunning opening to the Olympic handball tournament in Rio.

His team is Qatar and he is one of 11 "mercenaries" in the oil and gas rich Gulf state's 14-man squad for the Games.

The hardest part for Bagaric came during the national anthems. After, it was a match like any other.

"I played with many of these players, and I lived with some of them in Croatia, in clubs," said the 30-year-old, who scored one goal in the victory.

"The worst feeling was during the national anthem. Ah, but what can I do? Qatar gave me the opportunity to play in the Olympic Games. It is the dream of any sportsman.

"For me it was hard, but after the game, I can relax."

Croatia were among the favourites to win this tournament - only the old Soviet Union have a better men's Olympic handball record than the 1996 and 2004 champions.

But they were handed a hiding by last year's World Championship finalists.

Qatar have made great waves in the sport, becoming the first team outside of Europe to win a world medal.

But it has not been without controversy. The team is made up of five players from the Balkans, two Syrians, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, a Cuban and an Egyptian.

They even have a Spanish coach: Valero Rivera.

Qatar have spent millions on assembling this team, thanks in part to lax qualifying rules in handball.

Unlike most sports, a player can change nationalities, such as Frenchman Bertrand Roine, a world champion with his own country just five years ago.

Players need wait only three years without representing one country before they can run out for another. Nations can also field an unlimited number of such players.

It means Qatar, ranked just 108th in the world, have arrived at the Olympics with a genuine chance of claiming the gold medal - which would be the country's first in any sport.

Some players from other teams have complained that Qatar are fielding a "world select" outfit, but Cuban back Rafael Capote doesn't see it that way.

"We're a team like any other. There's nothing special about us," he said.

Capote was among the nominees to be world player of the year last season. He lost to Denmark's Mikkel Hansen - who plays for Qatari owned Paris Saint-Germain.

While Qatar's motley crew would certainly provide one of the stories of the Games if they won, for France coach Claude Onesta, they are setting a dangerous precedent and damaging the image of the sport.

His side, the two-time reigning Olympic champions, only narrowly beat Qatar 25-22 in last year's world final.

"When you have temporary passports for a competition, it's bending the rules," he complained following that match.

"I'm not blaming Qatar, who are playing by the rules, but it would be damaging to continue down this path."

Even disgraced former Fifa head Sepp Blatter criticised Qatar over their mercenaries policy, before his head rolled amid accusations of corruption and an investigation into the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar and 2018 tournament to Russia.

He said Qatar's recruitment policy was "absurd" but Roine denies rumours of huge financial incentives.

"When I see in the press that we were paid millions to come here, it's wrong," he said.

"In my case I got zero. It was more a sporting opportunity than a financial one."

That may be hard to swallow for many people who will be interested to see how Roine reacts during the national anthems on Tuesday when his new country face his old one.

If it's anything like Bagaric, you could be forgiven for imagining him humming a different tune to himself.