Qatar Series: Aspire Academy

Part one of Sandals for Goalposts’ look at the increasing impact of Qatar, not just continentally but on the larger worldwide footballing landscape. Martin Lowe initially looks at the youth structure in place through the greatly talked about Aspire Foundation, and whether the seeds being sown now will have a demonstrable impact as the national team prepare themselves for their home World Cup in 2022.

For a nation that occupies the size of Yorkshire, with as many inhabitants as Merseyside, the unassuming Gulf state of Qatar has quite rapidly flung itself onto the international football gaze over the last 5 years. From perceived footballing nobodies, to controversial hosts of the game’s grandest competition, the general mood outside of the region has tended to treat Qatar with hostility and wariness towards their lacking footballing heritage and lately their questionable human rights practices. As we speak potential criminal investigations are being carried out to fully uncover the truth behind Qatar’s successful bid.

While western media outlets have tended to focus purely on the infrastructure and organisation or in isolated cases the Qatari’s existing national squad, little light has been shone on those who will actually compete in 2022, potentially the nation’s first ever World Cup. Seven years is a long time in World football, where it’s greatly foreseeable that Qatar may be stripped of their hosting privileges. One aspect that will remain however, is the strength in the team being developed on the field for 2022, whether they have to qualify or not.

Last year, somewhat under the radar Qatar became continental champions at Under 19 Youth level, and are currently in New Zealand competing at the Under 20 World Cup. This precise age range are likely to be hitting their prime come 2022, given the player’s will range between 25-28 years of age. This peak in performance hasn’t come by chance, by any means. It has been a calculated plan to invest in youth development that has stretched across the globe in search of the brightest and most talented individuals under the umbrella of the Aspire Foundation.

The Aspire Foundation was set up originally as a non-profitable charity organisation (before being privatised in 2008), travelling the World in search of the most talented sports stars, before granting scholarships to one of their two academies. One situated in the Qatari capital Doha, the other an African branch in Dakar, Senegal. An admirable humanitarian project that on the face of it would be hard to criticise, but as time has gone by controversies have come thick and fast for the foundation, who are now facing a barrage of questions over their true intentions.

The necessity for such a project has been greatly called for, for some time, as Qatari based writer Ahmed Hashim explains. “(Sport) has never been part of (Qatar’s) culture. But things are changing, slowly but surely. I feel all the successes that Aspire graduates have brought to the country has played a significant role in changing people’s mind-sets. Besides it’s not just a question of training young athletes and developing talent; the Aspire project is much more than that.”

“The Aspire zone (based in Doha) has within it a huge public park, health & fitness facilities, an Olympic standard swimming arena, two sports media establishments and a world class sports medicine hospital. It is all part of the Qatari government’s desire to instil a holistic sporting culture in the society. People in Qatar, whether native or expat, are more sport-loving than ever before and Aspire has had a big part to play in that.” This broad idea of pushing forward a national scheme to encourage a greater engagement in sport isn’t a different one from even the most established sporting nations, so why has it been met with such scepticism?

For the last five years, since the controversial World Cup vote, the microscope has been firmly focused on all things relating to Qatari football. One area of contention has been the number of nationalised internationals that Qatar have “recruited”. At January’s Asian Cup in Australia, 10 of the 23 man squad were born from outside the country, some had only just gained citizenship months before the tournament, leading to distaste even from within Qatar. “The argument is that native Qataris simply aren’t good enough but I don’t think (that’s the case)” assesses Hachim. “I could understand it if they were naturalizing players who have lived in Qatar for a long time, but cases like those of (Mohammed) Tresor and (Mohammed) Muntari are just downright disappointing. Instead of putting your hopes in Qatari youth, (former national team coach Djamel) Belmadi put his in two players who didn’t even speak Arabic.”

While the general make-up of the Qatari squad remains heavily dependent on overseas born players, there are indications that this could be reversed in the coming seven years ahead of their home World Cup. More and more Qatari born nationals are being used in their successful youth squads, such as the U20 team, (which was totally occupied by Aspire graduates) that will travel to New Zealand. While Qatari families were initially aloof to the idea of sending their children away to a sport focused academy, the wider success and improving worldwide benefit of the Aspire project has slowly seen an increase in the number of home nationals developing through the Qatari age groups.

One other notable advantage of the Aspire project is their inspirationally named HOPE (Habituating Overseas Professional Experience) wing, where Aspire has sought to develop on-going ties with European club sides. Their scope has stretched across France, Germany and Austria, while thanks to Academy director’s Ivan Bravo and Roberto Olabe, there has been a keener influx of players being placed in Spain with top tier sides such as Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid. Over the last few years however, the strongest relationship has been developed with the newly Aspire owned KAS Eupen, a side currently competing in Belgium’s second tier.

A cursory glance of Eupen’s squad offers an insight to their future recruitment plan. Only seven of the playing staff are Belgian born, with the rest hailing from Africa or the Gulf region via the Aspire academy base scholarships. Six of the U19 winning Qatari side are registered with Eupen, two of the most promising; winger Ahmed Al Saadi and midfielder Ahmed Moein Doozandeh are particularly well thought of, and are already keen on developing their careers in the higher echelons of European football. This is a world away from the current senior squad which exclusively ply their trade in the country’s domestic Qatar Stars League.

Generally those who have stayed have seen the domestic product gradually improve. An ever increasing number of the existing Qatar squad have been produced by the academy and are starting to attract gazes from outside the Gulf as our Asian football expert Tom Danicek observes. “In an ideal world, (current Qatari left-back) Abdelkarim Hassan would be plying his trade in Europe by now, as he’s tremendously gifted, mature and physically strong at the same time. The Academy has definitely produced.” But one area continues to need improvement. “(Aspire) has been supplying the national team with potential defensive mainstays rather than some exciting attacking prospects.” One criticism has been put forward that QSL sides have tended to jump in too early to recruit overseas nationals in attack over nurturing their very own through the academies.

While Qatar comes in for some strong criticism over nationalising players, they can’t be discredited for trying to remedy this. For a small nation, their desire to quickly compete led to QSL clubs taking the easiest route to success, by purchasing before nationalising overseas imports. In the first instance, despite official sounding out from within Aspire, the academy continued to offer citizenship to those who had been offered scholarships from outside of Qatar. This has been claimed to be in the interest of the player themselves, with the Academy acting as a provider of an opportunity rather than a one-way solution for the players involved. They point to clear examples of many of their graduates going on to represent their home nations in international football, best shown through the recent rise of Senegal’s youth national teams. Time will tell whether the increase in scholarships to Qatari born players will skew the national team picture back in their favour or whether Qatar will continue to persuade ever younger mercenaries.

The other issue surrounds Aspire targeting specific, less traditional footballing nations in exchange for votes in the World Cup bidding process. Aspire run the rule over thousands of players over the breadth of Africa, East Asia and smaller central and south American nations. It has been put to them by their critics that this humanitarian painted effort has been pinpointed at those nations who could help Qatar secure the 2022 allocation. Aspire’s defence purely, is that this is simply a wider reaching sporting initiative to enhance talent with no desired political gains to be had. Of course every generous action such as this can often be categorised under the “gift” tag which is liberally rolled out when bidding to host sporting competitions. From the designer “gift” handbags offered by the English FA bid team, through to the gravely serious bribe allegations amongst FIFA members, there is clearly a whole range of persuasion on offer.

World Cup bidding aside, the true impact of such a well-funded academy is the quality which is produced at the footballing end. At last year’s Under 19 Asian Championship, Qatar were clearly much further along in their footballing education. The fact that they had already instilled a number of their squad into European football was a key factor, granting a great platform in which to grow. A position which will prove enticing to those top tier sides around Europe sniffing around for a good deal in the coming months. Qatari players are usually treated with caution given their lack of experience outside the region, through HOPE Aspire are breaking down the barriers between their graduates and top tier football.

It’s becoming clearer that the Aspire foundation is starting to cement itself in its first decade in practice as one of the foremost figures in developing talent across the World. Whatever the criticisms, the Qatari national side at every youth level has upped its game, with most pressure being applied to those at U20 level right now, who are hoped to lead the line in 2022. Whether they can live up to that high standard in the coming days and weeks as they take on the very best in New Zealand, it will be interesting to see. But in reality, this threatens to just be the beginning. You may not have thought it five years ago, but Qatar are maneuvering into place as one of the leading players in world football’s future.

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  1. Qatar Series: The National Team | Sandals For Goalposts
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