Ever since winning the right to host the FIFA World Cup 12 years ago, Qatar has been on the back foot. FIFA Executive Committee corruption allegations. Continuous sports washing criticism. Smallest ever host nation. Human rights abuses. Allegations of 6,500 immigrant worker deaths building stadia. Searing heat. Laws against homosexuality. Insufficient accommodation.
All of that is before we even touch on the apparent lack of footballing heritage. Qatari officials are not blind to that of course, and set about changing all that some time ago. At the time the tiny nation was controversially awarded the rights to host the 2022 event back in December 2010, they were 113th in the FIFA world rankings – their lowest ever position. They’d only played their first-ever international fixture 40 years before, losing 2-1 to Bahrain, and they’d never qualified for the World Cup. In fact, they’d only won four out of 25 matches across seven Asian Cup finals appearances, making the knockout stages just once.
Building a football legacy
Twelve years might seem like a long time, but in truth it was the blink of an eye to create an entire footballing pedigree in time to prove the team on the pitch belonged. Up to that point, the approach seemed a little slap-dash on the surface; the national team itself had only ever had three Qatari managers, none of whom lasted a year, while 13 Brazilians had held the post. Top-flight clubs were reportedly gifted $10 million each back in 2003 in an attempt to flood the league with big-name stars, and for a short while the likes of Steffen Effenberg, Gabriel Batistuta, Pep Guardiola, Marcel Desailly, Fernando Hierro and the De Boer brothers were strutting their well-paid stuff in Qatar.
When a nation has a population of just 2.7 million – of whom only a little over 300,000 are Qatari citizens – and a pool of around 7,500 registered football players, it is perhaps not surprising that the national team – or even just the domestic game – would struggle to build any meaningful quality. The taste for foreign input saw an approach develop that many countries have long practiced; naturalised foreigners players.
The practice of integrating foreign-born players into a national set-up is decades old and has been adopted on numerous levels by the great and good of international football – from the infamous Oriundi Latin Americans who represented Italy from the 1930s, the long-standing distinctly colonial influence to France and Portugal national teams, to more recently Russia claiming Guilherme and Mario Fernandes or even Australia’s cosmopolitan 2022 World Cup squad with members born in Sudan, Kenya, Scotland and Croatia.
The original success story of this approach to upgrading the national team is surely Sebastian Soria. The then 20-year-old Uruguayan striker was among the theoretically lesser lights brought over in the early 21st century wave of glitzy foreign stars to kick-start the Stars League; within two years had been granted citizenship, and a year later he made his full international debut, but his path was anything but a flash in the pan, an experiment that fizzled out. He went on to become the record cap holder for his adopted nation with 124 appearances, scoring 39 goals, and almost two decades later is still playing an active part in the domestic league with Qatar SC.
Rodrigo Tabata arrived a month after Qatar was officially awarded the 2022 World Cup seemingly slipping into the twilight of his career, having turned out for Brazilian heavyweight Gremio, Internacional and Santos in his homeland before a two-and-a-half year stint in Turkey with Besiktas and Gaziantepspor. At 30, the only major silverware he had won was the Turkish Cup in 2010/11, and even then he had hardly played a major role having left on loan in the January transfer window before the latter stages of that competition. Over a decade later, he is also still playing in the Stars League having racked up 134 goals in 235 Qatari top-flight appearances, as well as a modest international career that brought two goals in 19 caps after making his debut at 35.
Not all attempted imports turned out so successfully though. Back in March 2004, three Brazilian players – Werder Bremen frontman Ailton, and Borussia Dortmund’s full-back Dede and midfielder Leandro – jetted out to Doha to announce their intentions to switch nationality, reportedly for $1 million contracts. Leandro made a handful of appearances for the German giants, but Dede was twice crowned Bundesliga champion with over 300 German top-flight appearances, while at the time Ailton had scored 20 goals in 23 Bundesliga matches and would finish the campaign as top scorer and league champion.
Qatari officials said they were confident the three would pull on their new national team jerseys in time for World Cup qualifiers later that month, but the highly-controversial deal fell through as even then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter – that famous moral guardian – criticized the move as against the spirit of the game.
Ironically, it was his move to relax nationality switches not long before that had created the very loophole Doha was looking to exploit. FIFA executives had met in Doha the year before, where the new rules allowing players to switch with minimal residency requirements were agreed, and which came into force two months before the three Qatari hopefuls were paraded before the press. That January, Frederick Kanoute, Mohamed Sissoko and Lamine Sakho all switched to represent Mali and Senegal having all played for France at youth levels.
None of the Brazilians made the change, and the rules regarding switching countries were tightened shortly afterwards. In hindsight it feels rather short-term at best, and grubby at worst, but what about the players themselves? Financial gain is a part of any transfer, just as it is in most professions, but the players claimed they simply wanted a shot at international football. Ailton had strong claims for disappointment at being snubbed, given his explosive form, while the route theoretically created by his German citizenship had also been ignored by the powers that be.
Qatar’s head coach at that time, Phillipe Troussier, had bemoaned the struggle to compete with scant resources, claiming 80% of his squad were not born in the tiny nation. He reportedly sent a wish-list of technically available French players he wanted to bring into the fold; for a short while, international football began to resemble the club transfer market.
Scratch a little deeper though, and the groundwork was being laid in a more sustainable manner. At almost the exact same time the Brazilian trio caused uproar, well before the World Cup was even being considered yet alone bid for, the phenomenal Aspire Academy was established. This sprawling world-class set-up is arguably the jewel in the crown of Qatar’s sporting drive; it serves as the sporting hub for the finest athletes and players the country can find, with the footballing branch just one of many elements.
The sheer scale of the academy process is mind-boggling. The Aspire Dreams pathway focused heavily on African talent, offering initial satellite academy training for over half a million youngsters at hundreds of centers across almost a dozen countries on the continent, with the finest offered month-long trials at the academy itself in Doha. This is no scam – the extremely troubling human trafficking network that exploits young African players dreaming of a professional career in Europe is the other end of this scale – given the facilities that await them, and the quality of training. Aspire then sends out youth teams to compete against the finest age-group teams in tournaments and friendlies, before things get really interesting.
In today’s game it is not unusual to see networks of clubs such as the Red Bull group, or City Group, but Aspire have taken a slightly different angle on this concept by buying less glamorous or obvious assets. KAS Eupen in Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League are owned by Aspire, and at one point over half the squad was flooded with Qatari and African youth products that had come through the academy system in Doha and African satellite centres. Today there are four, including two that have gone on to represent their countries.
Breaking into the absolute top level of European football still eludes Aspire players though. A few years ago, Aspire graduate Diawandou Diagne made the move to Belgium, before Barcelona snapped him up. He got as far as making the bench for the first team without making his full debut, but his profile rose enough for him to make his debut for Senegal.
Akram Afif arguably came closest about four years ago. The attacking playmaker joined the youth setups of Sevilla and Villareal without making a first-team appearance, before a loan spell at Sporting Gijon yielded 11 appearances, without scoring. Sadly his career appears to be in an extraordinary limbo; with 53 assists and 62 goals in just 77 Qatari league appearances, he is clearly several echelons above domestic quality, and yet hasn’t made the leap to Europe by the age of 26.
When you consider other more-than-trifling investments such as the sponsorship of Barcelona shirts and purchase of Paris Saint-Germain, and the staging of world sporting events over many years, superficial accusations of senseless temporary answers to the seriously challenging issue of developing enduring success become baseless. Criticisms of buying improvement are half true – not many nations can afford such wide-reaching development and facilities – but miss the realisation that not everything could be airlifted in. The endless investment in overseas coaching, playing talent and education programs have added an understanding
Feliz Sanchez is a classic example of this approach. The 46-year-old Spaniard will lead the Qatari side out at this tournament after leading the senior side for the past five years, but his position has been no coincidence. After a decade as a coach at Barcelona’s La Masia academy where he helped develop key elements of one of the greatest club generations of all time, he was brought over to run youth teams at the Aspire Academy in 2006. After seven years at the groundbreaking set-up, he moved across to focus more on the Qatari under-19 and under-20 sides, before taking charge of the full senior side.
He is no flash in the pan, no knee-jerk appointment based on a glamorous CV; he has worked alongside many of the squad that carry the weight of expectation on their shoulders this winter right through the entire development. Success has already come under his tenure too. He guided the under-19 side to the AFC Championship with a squad entirely comprised of Aspire Academy graduates, including Akram Afif – who scored the winner in the final – and Almoez Ali, both of whom were central to the senior side that became continental champions with the 2019 AFC Asian Cup crown.
The squad now boasts an entire generation of players that have grown up together under the same coach and are no strangers to winning. The step up from continental to global success is of course enormous, but the experience in the squad – five players have over 100 caps, while half have at least 50 – blended with a system and coaching set-up they know inside out and of course home advantage, there are enough elements to give them hope.
Headlines for the wrong reasons
Quite understandably, a huge amount of anger and frustration has been vented across the globe at the issues on the ground. “Issues”, as a phrase, undercuts the severity and tragedy substantially; conditions migrant workers have reportedly been subjected to – low wages, freedom of movement stripped, lack of full medical care, and around 6,500 deaths at construction sites – are appalling, and take precedence over anything on a football pitch.
Four years ago, I met two Englishmen who were working on stadium construction projects in Doha while visiting the Qatar pavilion in Moscow during the 2018 World Cup, and they came across as laid-back and positive about their whole experience, and what they assured me were improved worker conditions.
I’ll cut to the point, and apologise for any offence that may be caused; two white faces telling me this made it a more plausible message than if it had come from a member of the Local Organising Committee. If European readers are honest, they would be the same. Most Westerners have scoffed at every insistence uttered by Hassan Al Thawadi that the accusations are baseless, or at least grossly exaggerated. It’s the same reason why investment vehicles put forward a figurehead more palatable to the audiences they are trying to convince. For Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle United, see blonde English woman Amanda Staveley; for LIV Golf’s brash breakaway series, see Australian Greg Norman.
I left that chat thinking about the reality on the ground – will we ever know the full, clear, honest picture? Doha has insisted that only 37 of the worker deaths reported actually occurred on stadium construction sites, and the rest were unrelated. Are they evading responsibility for a horrific abuse of humanity to sportswash their image, or can they be absolved of any blame for fatalities that occurred in stifling heat?
Women’s rights and the illegality of homosexuality has caused outrage from campaigners everywhere. Gianni Infantino delivered the most extraordinary monologue at the opening press conference on Saturday, in what can only be described as a Boris Johnson-esque attempt at PR; the Western world, he insisted, is guilty of the utmost hypocrisy in criticising Qatar when its own history has produced endless tales of human rights abuses and persecution. Claiming he “felt gay, felt like a migrant worker, felt Arab, felt Muslim” – and understood their pain because he “used to have freckles and red hair as a child” were so far beyond parody that Alan Partridge would have baulked at uttering his host-backing rant.
Whataboutery, or hypocrisy?
In other words, in modern youth terms, he delivered a masterclass in “whataboutery”. You can’t slag off Qatar for abusing human rights until you have fully apologised for your own is an idiotic stance to take – but, and I hesitate to write this next line, there is a slither of his sentiments that are not completely removed from reality. Visit the streets of many UK towns and cities today and see the food banks drained of resources, the families switching off heating to afford what scraps of food they can, while multi-billionaires get richer and huge corporations break record profits – is that not an abuse of human rights? Across the pond, countless minorities are screaming for protection as race riots break out, while systemic conditions have denied black and Asian communities the same democratic rights as the white-skinned population – is that allowing the US Constitution’s guarantee of the right to the pursuit of happiness?
Infantino has as much class and self-awareness as a plank of wood, clearly – only a week ago he sent a now-infamous letter begging all competing countries to “focus on the football”, while a few days ago he even asked world leaders to commit to a month-long ceasefire while his money-spinning tournament took place.
Support his views and you will be thrown to the wolves. The uncomfortable truth is, however, that there is an element of hypocrisy, whether one accepts it or not; at the same time, there are also clearly major abuses taking place in Qatar that must be addressed regardless of some young men kicking a ball around. These two sides can both be true, and yet so many people refuse to accept that to be the case – you are violently for or against.
Infantino and FIFA have to tow the line of their host country for obvious reasons, so how anyone can expect a different general viewpoint is hard to understand. What would have been encouraging would have been to see 12 years of efforts to secure legal protections and basic human rights guaranteed, instead of soundbites that convince no-one but outrage everyone. After the show leaves town is when the real scrutiny should begin; even if superficial change appeared noticeable during the tournament when the world’s eyes are focused on Qatar is one thing, but whether they remain in place permanently is quite another.
Whether the world likes it or not, football is about to begin. Qatar open up their tournament to a chorus of deafening uncertainty and fury, and while some would argue the players themselves have a responsibility to speak out on the issues that have exploded, it is worth bearing in mind a sense of perspective.
Call it cowardice if you will, but when living in an entirely different culture and mindset, where speech simply is not as free, these young men risk their families’ safety and future by putting themselves in the firing line. It is the easiest thing in the world to vent fury from the comfortable protection of an armchair in Europe or the US; much less so as a Qatari citizen held up as a symbol of your nation by the powers of unimaginable wealth and influence.
They could speak, but then what? Would their words alone change anything? The people whose responsibility to ensure human rights are respected are those in suits and positions of power – all too often, their own pockets rather than their conscience are the priority. Blame FIFA’s culture of looking past morality to the bank; blame the politicians fixated on enshrining their grasp on power rather than protecting their citizens; and yes, blame the players too if you wish, but just remember their lives, situations and security is not the same. It simply is not as black and white as most would like.
The football team itself offers a unique opportunity to see quite how far deep investment can go. Qatar’s squad have been withdrawn from domestic duties for the last few months to prepare, while their entire lives have, without exaggeration, been crafted and honed to this moment. The mentality, performance, desire and achievement in this context will likely never be seen again on quite the same scale. Immerse yourself in the humanity on the ground, and indulge in a sporting experiment like no other – both are possible.