x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Qatar's Aspire Academy is key for a competitive host nation at 2022 World Cup

The institute will play a vital role in the coming years to nurture footballing talent and make Qatar a contender at its own World Cup.

DOHA // Tucked behind a glitzy shopping mall and a 40,000-seater stadium, sits an institution that has been briefed with an ambitious — some might say impossible — mission: Turn Qatar's national football team, currently ranked 105 in the world, into contenders when the country hosts the 2022 World Cup.

Dozens of boys can be seen playing on the eight indoor and outdoor football pitches learning the basics of the game. But Qatar's Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence is not your ordinary camp.

It is the heart and soul of a master plan that aims to find the best players in the country of 1.6 million and beyond.

Thousands of Qatari boys from as young as six are scouted from the country's 10 talent centres each year and several dozen are admitted into the academy for 12 years of intense training.

They have access to the best coaches from more than a dozen countries and compete alongside African, Asian and Latin American youths who are plucked from developing countries to boost the talent pool and possibly contribute to the national team.

Each year they play against 30 or more youth teams of the world's elite clubs, including Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United, who are flown into Doha. The programme has gained added inspiration since Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

"It's a great motivation," said Wayde Clews, the academy's Australian director of sport. "There are now little boys waking up every morning and that is all they are thinking about. They can see a pathway.

"They know that Aspire is here ... It's become real. It's become tangible. That is just great to galvanise the community and efforts to fielding this team that without question will ultimately perform very well in 2022."

But will Qatar, which as of now would be the lowest ranked team to host a World Cup, put in a good showing?

It has the money — with the world's second highest per capita income — to hire a big-name coach and already has some of the best training facilities. It also has much more time than past fledging World Cup hosts like South Africa to find and develop a talented team.

However, it also the smallest country to host a World Cup, a situation worsened by the fact that 80 per cent of the population is made up expatriates. That limits the talent pool as well as the quality of competition since all of the best Qatari players can be found at the academy.

"What can you expect from a country with 320,000 people in football?" said Alfred Riedl, the Indonesian coach who has also coached Vietnam and Austria. "In 2022, there will be maybe 700,000 Qataris living there. This might be not enough to field a strong football team. But they have 11 years and that's a lot. Bring in the best coaches and bring out the best youth players."

Danny Jordaan, chief of the local organising committee for the World Cup in South Africa, said size alone will not determine whether Qatar will succeed.

"If population size was the determining factor, then China and India should qualify for every World Cup. But that is not the case," Jordaan said. "You find countries like Trinidad and Tobago which qualified for the 2006 World Cup and we saw Slovenia in 2010. It is not the size of population but what plans you have in place achieve success."

Mohamed bin Hammam, the president of the Asian Football Confederation, allows that his nation probably will not beat the Brazils of the world. Buoyed by Qatar's surprising quarter-final appearance at the Asian Cup last month, before losing to the eventual winners Japan 3-2, bin Hammam said he expects the team will make the nation proud.

"Of course, we need to improve to be a world-class team. But you see our team against Japan which made the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup. Qatar was still very much equivalent to Japan," he said. "It doesn't mean Qatar is at the zero level. They are at a very good level in terms of players. When we classify ourselves as a football nation, you can see what kind of football infrastructure we have. In Qatar, we are proud of this."

Bin Hammam also said Qatar will not rule out using naturalised players from other countries — as Qatar did at the Asian Cup with some of its top players coming from South America and Africa.

"To field a squad with people not originally from Qatar but over years became naturalised, it is not a wrong thing and would not be the first [time]," he said.

Qatar can take inspiration from the likes of the 1962 hosts Chile. Still recovering from a devastating earthquake two years earlier, the team finished third.

Sergio Navarro, the captain of the 1962 Chilean team, said the key components were bringing together an organising committee made up of "serious, responsible and realistic people," the coaching of Fernando Riera and the fans who rallied around the team after it started winning.

"Now, Qatar is a totally different situation, and these are different times," Navarro said. "I'm sure they have no money problems for stadiums and other facilities, but there are other aspects in the organisation. Time runs fast, and although their World Cup is years away, they should be working already. And fulfil the promises they make."

South Africa, the first host nation not to reach the knock-out stage of the finals, failed to capitalise on its winning bid. South Africa were a top 50 team when it won the bid in 2004. But slipped to as low as 90th, mostly due to the failure of hiring a top coach — Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira — until months before the tournament and the dependence on older players at the expense of younger talent.

"I think we should have taken a decision earlier to rebuild a new team," Jordaan said.

Jordaan said Qatar can avoid South Africa's mistakes by putting its resources into player development — improving the Under 17, Under 20 and Olympic teams along with boosting the quality of its professional league.

Aspire, which was founded six years ago, has already produced several players for the country's Olympic and national teams. Looking out on the eight and nine-year-olds he coaches, Ricardo Borba said he has no doubt some will be stars for Qatar by 2022.

"You have to dream a little bit," Borba said. "Without a dream, you're life doesn't make sense."