A little more than a decade ago, Andreas Bleicher, then a director of one of Germany’s Olympic training centers, arrived in the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar, wooed there by its royal family to help turn the hopeless national soccer program into something worthy of the world’s respect.
There were plenty of reasons this would be difficult — the country hardly has a tradition of soccer 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 program 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 F.C. Barcelona generally credited with discovering Lionel Messi, perhaps the best soccer player in the world, when Messi was a boy in Argentina.
Colomer was known in soccer circles 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 tantalizing. 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.
The program 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 program’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 American universities are housed on a sprawling compound known as Education City; the I. M. 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.
A Soccer Deadline
As for its soccer 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 100th place in the latest world rankings, between Zimbabwe and Moldova.
When Qatar hosts the World Cup in eight years, its standards for success will be far different from the tournament that ended Sunday in Rio de Janeiro with Germany defeating Argentina, 1-0, in extra time for the championship. Brazilian leaders are thrilled that the tournament went 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 soccer 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 suit up 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 naturalization rules make it difficult — requiring players to live in the country for five continuous years after age 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 program. A number of the boys have already played for their home nations. “If we naturalize 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 skeptical of Aspire Football Dreams, the name of the international recruitment program.
Some believe Qatar will ultimately attempt to naturalize some of the boys. Others have suggested that the program 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.
Yet Qatar maintains there is a higher purpose, a humanitarian impulse to aid a largely beleaguered region even as it helps to rebrand the emirate, which has been criticized by human rights groups for abusive treatment of migrant laborers.
An Influential Force
For all its scope, Qatar’s international soccer machine was built largely on the word of one man: Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, the brother of the emir and the most soccer-mad member of the royal family.
At one time, it was assumed that Jassim would be the next emir of Qatar, but in 2003, his younger brother succeeded him as crown prince and ascended as emir last year. Jassim has remained a quiet, influential force, however, and has guided Qatar’s soccer development.
His love for the sport knows no bounds. As the story is told in Qatar, Jassim, battling insomnia a couple of years ago, summoned a doctor to his palace. When the doctor arrived, he immediately saw the cause of Jassim’s sleeplessness — the rows of television sets covering the wall, all tuned to soccer day and night. Turn off some of your televisions, the doctor is said to have told him, and your insomnia will be cured.
In 2006, Bleicher and a group of Aspire executives met with Jassim in his former office near the top of the 30-story Qatar Olympic Committee Building. Others who have met with Jassim say that there is sometimes a lengthy wait for an audience with his highness, as he and other royals are called (his actual name is rarely uttered). Once a meeting begins, however, Jassim asks incisive questions and makes rapid-fire decisions.
“We did not need to convince him,” Bleicher said of the discussions with Jassim about the Africa plan. “You don’t convince him.” He went on, “He was excited and delighted and this is why he gave his approval. If he did not like it, he would not give his approval.”
Anywhere else in the world, the Aspire program would have sounded like a fever dream. But here it was but a small part of the nearly incomprehensible fever dream that is on display in Doha everywhere you turn.
Start of Aspire Africa
In April 2007, Aspire announced that it was embarking on an international talent search called Aspire Africa. The original plans called for scouts to be dispatched to seven African countries — Morocco, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa.
In that first year, the tryouts were heavily publicized, on television and radio and on posters in small villages. The project was supported by Nike, as well as Bonus Sports Marketing, a consulting firm founded by Sandro Rosell (who later became the president of F.C. Barcelona).
From the start, the program was marketed as a chance for young African boys to have a shot at a new life, one that could drastically change the possibilities for them and their families and even their communities.
“In the beginning, the people in Africa, they didn’t believe we were coming,” Bleicher recalled.
When the scouts arrived, driving through the villages in S.U.V.s, they were often mobbed by young boys hoping to catch their attention.
The tryouts sometimes took place on bare fields in remote and even dangerous places. (One coach said he had two armed guards accompany him in Nigeria, though the protection did not keep him from being taken away in a van and questioned for eight hours by local authorities before being released.)
After watching local scrimmages for days, the scouts invited 50 players from each country for a weeklong trial in their home nations’ capitals. The three best boys from each country, along with the best three overall goalkeepers, were then taken to Aspire Academy in Doha for more trials.
For nearly all of the finalists, the trip to Qatar was their first time on an airplane. The Aspire dorms, which resemble upscale hotels, were baffling palaces where some boys needed help working the glass elevators.
The crown jewel of the Aspire campus is its multipurpose dome, said to be the largest of its kind in the world, which includes a FIFA-regulation soccer field, an Olympic-size swimming pool and a 1,200-seat amphitheater. Across the campus, speakers pipe in the sounds of birds chirping throughout the day.
Aspire originally planned to offer scholarships to only three finalists, who would then come to Doha to live and train. But once the scouts saw the wealth of talent on display, they scaled up their ambitions, allowing for scholarships for up to two dozen boys, many of whom would live and train at a satellite academy opened in Saly, Senegal.
According to an internal concept document shown to The New York Times, Aspire executives initially saw the Senegal academy as a place to develop a potential “talent pool” for Qatari football clubs and to enhance Aspire’s “image as the world’s best talent pool.”
“We realized that the level of the players was huge,” Colomer said. “And we could organize an academy with these players to give them a hope and a chance to grow to the high levels.”
A Tough Transition
In the years that followed, Aspire Africa was rebranded as Aspire Football Dreams, its scope expanding to as many as 17 countries, including three in the Americas (Guatemala, Costa Rica and Paraguay) and two in Asia (Vietnam and Thailand). By bringing the boys to the academies in Qatar and Senegal at such a young age, Aspire shouldered responsibility for their development not just as soccer players, but as people. The transition has not always been easy.
“They come from the mud huts in Africa to this spaceship,” said one former Aspire coach, who wished to remain anonymous because he still works in soccer.
There are language differences, and players get homesick. Some inside Aspire also expressed concerns that the boys were being trained too much, and that they were hiding injuries for fear of being sent back.
“We were afraid,” said Franck Cedric Tchoutou, a Cameroonian who was among the early scholarship students who lived and trained in Doha. “Most of us, we came from poor families. Being in Qatar or being in Aspire was a great experience. It was a great opportunity. So we walked around there and we were always afraid to lose our opportunities.”
Bleicher acknowledged that a scholarship away from home can be trying, but he said that Aspire offered its players more than most academies in terms of medical care, education and training.
According to an agreement reviewed by The Times, a Football Dreams scholarship offered room and board and training and schooling, a few hundred dollars per month in spending money, as well as tickets for the boys to travel home and for parents to visit. The families also receive as much as $5,000 per year, a sum that in many cases would be several times a family’s annual income.
At the start of 2014, there were about 70 boys living at the Senegal academy. Last year, Aspire brought Lionel Messi to its Senegal campus to announce plans to distribute 400,000 mosquito nets and place a medical official in every African town where Football Dreams operates.
“I believe we can use football and the inspirational power of sport,” Messi said at the event, according to an Aspire news release, “to really make a difference.”
Despite Qatar’s insistence that Football Dreams was always intended as a humanitarian mission, the program drew intense criticism almost as soon as Aspire’s scouts set off in search of African talent. The unease was due in part to Qatar’s recent history of paying to import foreign athletes to represent it in international competitions.
In 1999, Qatar’s weight-lifting team was disqualified from the Arab Games when competitors protested that it had four Bulgarian-born lifters. (A year later, one won a bronze medal for Qatar at the Sydney Olympics.) In 2003, Qatar offered the Kenyan runner Stephen Cherono $1,000 a month for life to switch countries. Cherono accepted and changed his name to Shaheen Saif Saaeed.
“I don’t speak Arabic and I have never sung the anthem,” he said at the time. “But my whole heart was trying for Qatar.”
It happened in soccer as well. In 2004, three Brazilian players were poised to play for Qatar, but FIFA quickly announced new rules blocking naturalizations where there is not a clear connection to the new country.
The British newspaper The Observer reported in November 2007 that some considered Aspire Africa to be “human trafficking” in the guise of humanitarianism, “with the sole intention of providing Qatar with footballers for their future national team.”
The article included a quote from the FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, who called the program a kind of “exploitation.” He later visited Qatar and, according to a news release issued by Aspire, changed his mind and lent his support to the program.
Yet some in Doha have apparently pondered the question of whether it is worthwhile to recruit foreign soccer players to become Qatari citizens.
One former Aspire executive said that, in private meetings, influential Qataris wanted to know why they should not be able to naturalize the imported players — Qatar had trained them after all — and in that way bolster the national team.
“For them, they pay for it,” the former executive said. “Other people have a big chance to have an easy life sponsored by the Qataris.”
Bleicher acknowledged that at the beginning of the project, the question of “whether some participants could one day play for Qatar” was “raised, but dismissed.”
“It did not align with the purpose of the project and the values of Aspire,” he said.
An Asset in a Cup Bid
Even if, as Bleicher and others insist, the boys do not play for Qatar in 2022, some saw the international recruitment program as a piece of Qatar’s multipronged effort to win the World Cup bid.
In interviews, Qatari officials and Aspire executives denied this was the case, emphasizing that Football Dreams was a costly program meant to help needy nations and that it provided minimal benefits for Qatar.
“Honestly, the amount of times that we mentioned it were minimal,” Hassan Al-Thawadi, the chief executive of Qatar’s bid committee, said, referring to the notion that Football Dreams played a key role in the 2022 campaign.
Documents reviewed by The Times suggested otherwise. During the summer of 2009, Aspire Academy’s marketing and communications department drew up a proposal that detailed precisely how Aspire Football Dreams could help Qatar’s bid for the World Cup.
A number of news stories have raised claims that Qatar, separate from Aspire, attempted to rig the bidding process with money. Qatar has denied the allegations, and FIFA is investigating.
Of the 24 nations with delegates on the FIFA executive committee, five were countries in which Aspire Football Dreams was operating, the proposal explained. Some in Aspire thought this would bolster Qatar’s chances for the World Cup. “Every country where projects are conducted should vote for Qatar,” the proposal read. “Five votes could be directly rendered favorable via an influence from Football Dreams.”
Bleicher said Aspire’s marketing department, which created the proposal, had no bearing on the 2022 bid campaign. “It shows the passion — but should not be mixed up with action, reality and responsibility,” he said.
Qatar’s written bid has not been made public, but The Times reviewed a portion of it titled “Football Development,” which highlighted Qatar’s contribution to the growth of soccer at home and abroad.
Aspire Football Dreams was mentioned several times, with discussion of its plans for further expansion in two countries: Thailand and Nigeria, both of which had votes on the executive committee.
It is unclear whether Aspire Football Dreams influenced the executive committee, which cast secret ballots. But in a shock to much of the soccer world, Qatar won the bid, well ahead of the United States, which finished second. Four years later, Qatar has not made a significant investment in either Thailand or Nigeria.
Al-Thawadi said programs in Nepal, Pakistan and Syria had taken priority. “Our commitment is towards football development,” Al-Thawadi said. “We are not looking at one nation or another.”
Success and Tension
In January, Aspire Academy’s campus was buzzing as the final game of the Al Kass Cup approached. Elite youth teams from around the world were in Doha for an all-expenses-paid tournament. The Aspire squad, made up of Qatari boys, finished in eighth place, and the under-16 team from Aspire Football Dreams — featuring boys from Senegal, Cameroon and Ghana — reached the title game versus Real Madrid, a global powerhouse.
Jean Jules Sepp Mvondo, a 15-year-old Cameroonian, was the captain of the Football Dreams squad. A few years earlier, Jean Jules (known as Jiji) was among the hundreds of thousands of 13-year-old boys screened by Aspire scouts when they came to Africa.
“Football Dreams is a big thing in Cameroon,” said Jiji, who has four sisters and three brothers. He described how he cried when his father told him that he had gotten the call that he made it.
Another boy, Jalilu Haruna Mola, a 14-year-old from Ghana, explained how his father died when he was 5, leaving him behind with his mother and older brother. His mother sells rice for a living, Jalilu said, and his scholarship has allowed her to pay for his older brother’s university education. “She always tells me she’s proud of me,” Jalilu said.
The Football Dreams teams have won several international contests. But with this success has come tension. Scouts coveted some of the Aspire boys for their own development clubs in Europe, and in 2011, several players split from Aspire to pursue soccer opportunities elsewhere.
Aspire executives were displeased by the departures. “They didn’t want us to talk to other agents, they definitely did not,” said Tchoutou, who now plays for A.S. Roma’s top youth team. But after three years, he decided to leave with their approval or not.
According to one scholarship agreement, the boys pledge not to sign any contract without the written authorization of Aspire. Of the few boys who have left the program, Bleicher said agents approached them secretly and made promises.
“Even though we were not happy with the hidden approach by the agents, in each case we allowed them to leave unconditionally,” Bleicher said, emphasizing that only a few boys have left the program. “If someone doesn’t want to stay, it’s better that he leaves.”
Only the best Football Dreams players get to take the next step and play for the Aspire-owned team in Belgium. The pressure of that was palpable in the final game of the Al Kass Cup. When the Football Dreams boys won in a dramatic shootout, they charged across the field in celebration, lifting their coaches and executives, including Colomer, into the air.
Jiji, who would later be named the best player of the match, stood crying on the field. Members of the Qatari military parachuted onto the grass field, holding the championship cup.
The boys had no idea what lay ahead. Some of them would soon move to yet another completely foreign place, a tiny town in Belgium, where Qatar owns a professional team, allowing the boys to continue to improve under Aspire’s watchful eye.
And four years from now, the very best of them could be playing in the 2018 World Cup, to be held in Russia.
Even if they are not wearing Qatar’s maroon jerseys, the players will bring Qatar the international respect the royal family has so far been unable to establish on its own soil.
“The next World Cup,” Bleicher said, “will be ‘our’ World Cup.” Source: New York Times