Is this the academy of dreams or exploitation?
Those behind the Qatari-funded soccer academy insist it’s a humanitarian initiative, but its critics say it’s a vehicle to naturalise African players
Older African members of the Aspire Football Dreams program watch as younger players played the visiting FC Barcelona youth team, in Doha, Qatar, on January 27th, 2014. Photograph: Bryan Denton/The New York Times
Students with Aspire Football Dreams, in white, line up before a match with FC Barcelona’s youth team, in Doha, Qatar, on January 27th, 2014. Phtograph: Bryan Denton/The New York Times
Abdoulaye Sall (16) gets a visit from his his parents, Adama Bah and Douda Sall, at the Aspire Football Dreams soccer academy in Saly, Senegal on June 3rd, 2014. Photograph: Jason Florio/The New York Times)
A little more than a decade ago, Andreas Bleicher, then a director of one of Germany’s Olympic training centres, arrived in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, wooed there by its royal family to help turn the hopeless football programme into something worthy of the world’s respect.
There were plenty of reasons this would be difficult – the country hardly has a tradition of football excellence, and its record of producing premier athletes in any sport is sparse. But there was one problem that seemed insurmountable. With a native population of only 300,000, Qatar simply did not have enough young players to form a team that could hope to compete with the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Germany.
“We were trying to build a national programme with a talent pool the size of one you might find in a small United States city,” Bleicher said. One of his early hires was Josep Colomer, a former youth scout for FC Barcelona generally credited with discovering Lionel Messi, when Messi was a boy in Argentina. Colomer was known in for his unorthodox ideas, and soon he began talking about importing talent to Qatar from Africa, where even children in the most far-flung villages grow up playing the game.
“Many of the players there, they don’t have any chance to be seen, to be discovered,” Colomer said. The possibilities were tantalising. What if Qatar could send expert scouts throughout Africa on a mission to identify young, talented boys and offer them scholarships to come train at Qatar’s Aspire Academy, the new, glimmering sports institute that was bankrolled by the royal family?
From that simple premise unspooled a wildly ambitious plan that reached from the dusty fields of Senegal and Kenya to the cloistered royal palaces of Qatar to a rundown stadium in a sleepy corner of rural Belgium. Let other countries start small. In the first year alone, Qatar screened nearly 430,000 boys in 595 locations across seven African countries. More than seven years later, Aspire has screened 3.5 million young athletes across three continents and cherry-picked the most promising boys for odysseys that have spanned the globe. Lower-level team The programme has taken Samuel Asamoah from Ghana to Qatar to Senegal to Belgium, where the royal family purchased a lower-level team as a strategic outpost to develop its players (far) away from the spotlight. It has taken Anthony Bassey from Uyo, Nigeria, on a similar journey.
The programme’s limitless scale is in keeping with Qatar’s broader desires to establish itself as a major player in all of its pursuits. The Qatari government – and, more important, the royal family – is determined to use the country’s immense natural gas and oil wealth to elevate its international standing overnight in the realms of architecture, commerce, culture, education, and sports. There is even a formal plan, Qatar National Vision 2030, which pledges that the country will become “an advanced society” within 16 years.
Those ambitions are on display across Doha: Six US universities are housed on a sprawling compound known as Education City; the IM Pei-designed art museum rivals the Jean Nouvel-designed history museum; and more construction is everywhere, much of it overseen by the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy.
As for its football ambitions, Qatar has a deadline to deliver a team that looks as if it belongs on the world stage: the 2022 World Cup, which Qatar will host. When Qatar won its 2010 bid to host that tournament – a process tainted by accusations of rampant bribery – it earned the host’s privilege of an automatic berth at the games. It will most likely be Qatar’s debut in the World Cup. The Maroon, as the team is known, sits at 92nd place in the latest world rankings, between Iraq and Estonia.
When Qatar hosts the World Cup in eight years, its standards for success will be far different from the tournament that ended in Rio de Janeiro with Germany defeating Argentina, 1-0, in extra-time. Brazilian leaders were thrilled that the tournament had gone off without a major incident – no stadiums collapsed, no riots marred the games.
When the world’s attention turns to distant Qatar in 2022, the royal family wants to inspire nothing less than utter astonishment. Providing premier stadiums and unrivaled spectacle will be easy – that just costs money, of which Qatar has plenty.
Far more difficult will be fielding a credible national team. So what is a royal family with unlimited resources to do? Cue the African teenagers. Bleicher and Colomer insist they have sought out the best young African athletes as a way to provide high-level competition for Qatari boys, and not, they maintain, so that African players can line out en masse for Qatar’s national team. But there remains a possibility, albeit a remote one, that some African players could represent Qatar in 2022.
“Could it happen?” Bleicher said. “I suppose maybe some of the players feel like they would want to represent Qatar, because Qatar helped them when their home countries did not.”
But naturalisation rules make it difficult – requiring players to live in the country for five continuous years after they turn 18. Bleicher said he believes it is more likely that the African athletes end up representing their native countries, where their success would then reflect back on Qatar and its training programme. A number of the boys have already played for their home nations. “If we naturalise a few players, what will happen?” Bleicher said. “Everyone will kill us. Everyone will see. We are not stupid, and neither is anyone else.”
Critics, though, have long been sceptical of Aspire Football Dreams, the name of the international recruitment programme. Some believe Qatar will ultimately attempt to naturalise some of the boys. Others have suggested that the programme was designed to curry favor with the Fifa panel that awarded the 2022 tournament. And some fear that the boys, selected at 13 years of age, are being exploited.