Qatar: Building team to spring surprise in 2022

Associated Press

December 18, 2014

     

In this Nov. 6, 2014 photo, an athlete trains on the indoor pitch at the Aspire Academy in Doha, Qatar. Qatar is relying on the academy to train what it hopes will be a competitive team at the World Cup it is hosting in 2022.

DOHA, Qatar — It's a cold, hard fact of football: Countries with tiny populations don't generally beat big ones with deep wells of talented players.

So how embarrassing might the score be when Qatar — smallest host in World Cup history, with just 282,750 citizens — plays the opening game of its 2022 tournament against, for example, titans Brazil or Germany?

At best 5-0? At worst 10-0, even 30-0?

"Impossible, impossible," said Ivan Bravo, the former Real Madrid administrator working to prevent such a loss from party-pooping over the Middle East's first World Cup.

"They will be ready to have a very good team, a competitive team."

Given Qatar's small size and lack of football pedigree, Bravo's bravura would sound like folly if not for one game-changer: money. The oil-and-gas rich nation that pokes into the Persian Gulf has mounds of it.

Funneled into the state-of-the-art Aspire training academy that Bravo oversees in Doha, Qatar's showcase capital, the wealth is helping to make the embryonic nucleus of what will be the 2022 home team more formidable than population numbers would suggest.

"It's thrilling," Bravo said in an Associated Press interview. "There's always an underdog story, the little guy trying to punch above their weight story, and I think people will get behind it."

    

In this Nov. 5, 2014, former Real Madrid and Spain star Raul , centre, congratulates San Lorenzo players, as they play Qatar’s Aspire Academy in Doha. Qatar is relying on the academy to train what it hopes will be a competitive team at the World Cup it is hosting in 2022.

Qatar qualifies automatically as host. It could be the only Middle East representative if its neighbors stumble in qualifying, as in 2010, when no team from the region went to South Africa. A strong host performance can make a World Cup memorable: French victory at home in 1998 and South Korea's wild ride to the semis of the 2002 tournament it co-hosted with Japan.

So pressure is on.

"The players know what an opportunity this is," Hassan al-Thawadi, Qatar's chief World Cup organizer, told the AP. "I'm sure they won't disappoint."

Aspire is a source of such confidence. It trains local kids and others unearthed by a mammoth international scouting program — dubbed "Football Dreams" — that screens hundreds of thousands of teenagers from 16 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The reach and size of that talent-search and Qatar's history of recruiting overseas athletes to represent it internationally led to suspicions it could naturalize foreign footballers in bulk for the World Cup, although Bravo insisted that isn't the plan.

He said Qatar's ambition for 2022 is not only to field a team of Qataris but to also have "seven, eight, nine, 10" Aspire-trained recruits from Football Dreams playing for other nations.

    

In this photo taken on Nov. 5, 2014, a man walks on the pitch as Qatar’s Aspire Academy plays against a visiting team, San Lorenzo, in Doha, Qatar. Qatar is relying on the academy to train what it hopes will be a competitive team at the World Cup it is hosting in 2022.

Aspire's facilities rival those of Europe's best clubs. Under a giant dome, it has a full-sized indoor pitch with an exhortation from Pele on one wall: "Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do."

Outside, generously watered grass pitches resist the desert heat. Recordings of birdsong piped in over loudspeakers give the place an "Alice in Wonderland" feel.

Raul has an office here, watching the academy's youngsters play and handing out trophies at competitions it organizes with Chelsea, Barcelona and other teams flown over to give Qatar's young players the experience and game-time they will need on the world stage in eight years. Bora Milutinovic, who coached the United States, Mexico, Nigeria, Costa Rica and China at World Cups, is often seen around the place, too, working as an adviser.

Young Qatari players have been embedded with professional teams in Spain, Monaco, Austria and a club Qatar bought in Belgium to immerse them "in a professional football environment 24 hours a day," which is something Doha lacks, "because of the league, empty stadiums," Bravo said. The 2016 Rio Olympics and 2018 World Cup in Russia, if Qatar qualifies, will also be opportunities to hone players for 2022.

While the pool of native Qataris is tiny — roughly only 4,000 boys are born here each year — Bravo says Aspire scouts see nearly all youngsters so no potential talent slips through. Motivating them, however, can be challenging: Thanks to the nation's oil-and-gas wealth, Qataris are the world's second-richest people per capita and — unlike slum kids in Brazil or Africa — don't need football as an escape.

"You're in a country where even attendance to training can be difficult," Bravo said, before adding: "There's a bit of a misperception about everybody in Qatar: They're wealthy kids, they are wearing Rolexes and driving SUVs. It's not the case. A lot of our kids come from more humble or medium-income situations."

A breakthrough came in October when Qatar's under-19 team beat China, Myanmar and finally North Korea to become Asian champions, qualifying them for the under-20s World Cup next year in New Zealand.

All the players are Aspire products and, Bravo said, none were naturalized, puncturing what he insisted are mistaken outside perceptions that Qatar is "naturalizing guys, left and right and ... shopping around the world for players."

"There you have the proof of what we are trying to do," he said, "which is to do this with the local players, because that is what this country wants."

"It's amazing," acknowledged Qatar's sports minister, Salah bin Ghanem bin Nasser al-Ali, in an AP interview. "We are the least populated nation in Asia but we won. We are the champion of the most populated continent. Think about it."

Qatar's senior team also won the regional Gulf Cup in November, beating host Saudi Arabia — with a population more than 100 times greater — in the final. Such successes are ammunition against critics who argue that World Cup organizer FIFA should not have picked such a football minnow as host.

"Because it's a small country they say, 'Why is the World Cup here?'" said Tareq Sulaiman, a midfielder on the championship-winning under-19 team. "This is the chance for us to show them that Qatar will do something good."