In any major event involving multiple nations, and subsequently, fans from numerous countries under the same roof, there are three protagonists – the sport itself, the players, and importantly, the host nation.
Back in 2010, South Africa became the first nation to host the biggest football spectacle – the FIFA World Cup. Spain’s triumph, the Netherlands’ agonising defeat in the final and Diego Forlan’s exquisite skills from that competition are still cherished by fans of the game, but amid the sporting aspects, fans also vividly remember the ‘vuvuzelas.’
Almost everyone in the stadium had a ‘vuvuzela’ in their hand – a plastic horn which produced a distinctively loud noise when blowing. Ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2022, the hosts have claimed fame yet again, albeit not for the right reasons this time.
Questions were raised when Qatar were awarded the hosting rights of the competition in 2010. Accusations of bribery made headlines, and while those in power back then are not in the picture anymore, the questions still remain.
FIFA’s host nation selection process in itself sparked controversy, but questionable human rights records only added fuel to the fire. As the spectacle nears, the flames are only getting intensified, with a split among football fans being discernible.
But while Qatar’s political, ethical and moral grounds are being examined and cross-examined, purely from a sporting perspective, their national team is not getting the recognition it deserves.
The Demographic Challenge in Qatar
Qatar’s demography is, to say the very least, a tad unusual. The country is densely populated, but not by its own citizens – approximately 89% of people currently residing in Qatar are not Qatari citizens, but came for work from other countries.
The actual population of Qatar is only 2.9 million – to put it into perspective, about the same as Nagpur, which happens to be the 14th largest Indian city.
Yet, in 2019, Qatar were crowned the champions of Asia, and their incredible rise serves as a case study for the nations who wish to walk the same path in this sport.
Qatar were not always a force to reckon with in football. In fact, they played their first official match only in 1970 – five decades since the commencement of the World Cup, and three decades since the Indian team toured Australia.
In its initial days, the game remained restricted to only a section of enthusiasts, until the last 1980s, when the team showed prominent signs of improvement. The peak came in the early 1990s, with Qatar winning their maiden Arabian Gulf Cup title in 1992. Dreams of challenging the big boys of football were still far-fetched, but the hopes were sown, and those having influence decided to chart a path for progress.
Qatar’s Two-Step Method of Football Development
There were two major steps undertaken by Qatar's football administrators – the easier one, and the more complicated, yet more beneficial one.
The first one was pretty plain and simple – naturalisation. That is, by definition, legally giving citizenship to a non-citizen.
Sebastian Soria, the player who has the third-highest appearances for the national team, was born in Uruguay. Rodrigo Tabata and Fabio Cesar – two talented midfielders – were born in Brazil. They are naturalised Qataris, and their cases are not among the rarities.
Instead, one could credit naturalisation for much of Qatar’s early success in the first decade of this century. The federation, unsurprisingly, tried to naturalise more talent from abroad, but the apex football governing body, FIFA made their rules more water-tight.
Back in 2016, the then-head coach, Jorge Fossati even threatened to step down if the naturalised Qatari players were not allowed to play, thereby highlighting their dependence on the procedure. Yet, with increasing restrictions, the football administrators understood the importance of having home-grown talent way back in the early 2000s, and they undertook the second step in the development pathway – increasing facilities.
In 2004, an Emiri Decree established the Aspire Academy – a sports academy set up with the intention of developing world-class athletes. Nearly two decades later, the academy is still regarded as one of the very best across the globe.
Promising talents were identified at a tender age and enrolled in the academy. They were provided with the best of facilities, and coaches were brought in from nations which were more developed from a sporting perspective. Among all of that, a formal education system was also established in the Aspire Academy, helping the children do away with the unnecessary juggling between school and training sessions.
A few years down the line, Aspire decided to expand its base by buying European teams – Spain’s Cultural Leonesa and Belgium’s KAS Eupen. They also formed ties with a few reputed teams from Europe, like England’s Leeds United, and founded another academy in Senegal.
This initiative paid off dividends, and handsomely so. In 2014, the Under-19 team of Qatar defeated some of Asia’s best teams to win the 2014 AFC U-19 Championship. All 22 players from that title-winning squad were Aspire Academy graduates.
The crème of the crop will be seen rubbing their shoulders with the likes of Virgil Van Dijk, Kalidou Koulibaly and Frenkie de Jong in a few days, and guiding them will be Spanish tactician, Felix Sanchez Bas – the former La Masia coach who was brought to Qatar in 2006, and since then, has had a crucial role to play in the country’s progress in football.
The Product of Co-Existence
The Aspire Academy has helped Qatar reduce the dependency on naturalising foreign talent, but the team we will see at the World Cup is a product of the co-existence of the two methods. Among the 26 players called up for the tournament, ten were not born in Qatar – a statistic that has received criticism. Yet, reality shows the same trend in some European nations as well, including the defending champions, France.
Leading the lines for Qatar in this World Cup will be two exciting talents – Akram Afif and Almoez Ali. The former was born in Doha, while the latter was born some 4,000+ kilometres away, in Sudan’s Khartoum. However, both of them have spent their formative years together at the Aspire Academy, which paints a fair picture of how the nation has gone about in its football development scheme.
Having strong financial backing has certainly helped Qatar, without which, perhaps none of their strategies would have been successfully implemented. But as the name of the academy suggested, Qatar did aspire, and now, they have a decent team who can put up a fight against most opponents.