Qatar sprints to join premier league of footballing nations
Sunday August 21st2016, a match at Sporting Gijon. The presence of Akram Afif on the pitch represents a triumph for his home nation of Qatar. The career path of this player is illustrative of one of the less-publicised aspects of the sporting strategy of the emirate state, that of training. How is Qatar investing in the sporting prowess of its youth? What are the political and social motives for this investment?
Akram Afif was born in Doha in 1996. During the 2000s, he attended football training at the Aspire Academy. The academy was founded in 2004, to promote sporting practice in Qatar by cultivating excellence, and is part of Doha’s sports quarter, called ‘the Aspire Zone’. It nurtures relationships with big names from the worlds of sport and science. Its medium term aims are representation for Qatar at international sporting events, and the development of networks that will turn Qatar into a global sporting hub.
Football is one of the central pillars of the academy. The Qatari sporting authorities chose to model their training programme on that of Spain, one of the highest performers in the youth leagues. Josep Colomer, of Barcelona FC, a heavyweight in the world of football training, was personally contracted by Qatar’s Emir, Hamad Ben Khalifa Al-Thani.
In 2007, Colomer launched ‘Aspire Football Dreams’, a vast selection programme covering Africa, Asia and Latin America. Young people selected in Africa train at the Aspire Academy in Dakar. Some are then selected for further training in Doha. Promising Qatari players between the ages of 16 and 18 are also recruited to the Aspire Academy, while remaining signed to their own clubs. Akram Afif, of Doha’s Al-Sadd Sports Club, was one of these, able to train alongside elite players on the ‘Aspire Football Dreams’ scheme.
|Qatar's Aspire Academy spearheads the country's effort to become a global sporting hub|
The Spanish Model
The Aspire Academy went on to court other key figures from the world of Spanish football. It has been headed since 2010 by Ivan Bravo, one time Director of Strategy at Real Madrid. Robert Olabe, a former goalkeeper at Real Sociedad, took charge of the Doha training centre in 2012.
The Italian professor Valter di Salvo, formerly fitness coach for Lazio in Rome, Manchester United and Real Madrid, has been responsible for the physical training of the young people at the centre since 2011. These Spanish football luminaries have been tasked with transforming Doha into a training centre of international standing.
Leagues and tournaments have been part of the academy’s offering since 2009. Twenty-odd times a year, teams from all over the world come to Doha to compete in the Aspire Zone. The best-known tournament is The Al-Kass Cup. It has been contested in February every year since 2012 by teams of under-17s from the top training centres, including those of Real Madrid, Barcelona and PSG. The Cup is intended to put Qatar on the radar of future football stars, who might be interested in using its state of the art facilities as they develop their careers.
In 2012, as part of the Aspire Academy programme, Akram Afif joined the youth system at Seville FC. He also played for the Aspire Academy team in the Al-Kass Cup. The Qatari authorities hope that exposure to the methodologies of the world’s best clubs will give their footballing hopefuls the edge they need to be able to compete internationally.
The best players in each Aspire Academy intake are all sent, like Afif, to spend a year at a renowned European club. For the 2013-14 season, these clubs included Real Madrid, AS Monaco, Villareal CF, AJ Auxerre and Red Bull Salzburg.
From the 2015-16 season onwards, Celta Vigo, the foremost Spanish training centre, will also accept a number of the academy’s best 15 and 16 year olds. Qatar’s own professional league is roughly equivalent in standard to the fourth division of a large European league. To learn to play at the highest level, the young Qataris need to access international leagues.
Lining up with the world's best of the best
While training occupies a large proportion of the professional footballer’s time, his response to competition is the deciding factor. The Aspire Academy programmes are designed to ensure trainees engage with this element as early as possible. If you’re aiming for the top, you must measure yourself against the best, which requires exposure to a minimum standard of professional practice. The HOPE project (Habituating Overseas Professional Experience) lends Aspire Academy players between 18 and 22 to partner clubs –Real Sociedad in Spain, Schalke 04, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany – so they can begin to absorb ‘the culture of winning’.
In an attempt to gain even greater control over the training process, Qatar is doing more than just forming partnerships; it is investing in its own European network. The purchase of the Belgian team KAS Eupen is an example: Akram Afif was part of the team’s line-up for the 2015-16 season. Guided by Josep Colomer and a posse of Spanish trainers, Afif shone in the Belgian second division championships, and was partly responsible for the ascendance of KAS Eupen into the Jupiler league. His contribution was noted by Spanish clubs. In July he signed for Villareal, a solid performer in the Spanish league and in European competition, who see in him as a player with potential. They lent him to Sporting Gijon for a season, to allow him to gain more experience of top level play.
This type of delineated career path is typical of the training template of the Aspire Academy. It is now exploring more options for launching the careers of its most promising players once they graduate. In the summer of 2015, it purchased both Cultural Leonesa and Lask Linz, a club with which it already had a long-standing partnership. Aspire Academy players now swell the ranks of both clubs.
When Qatari players begin to be recruited to major leagues, by renowned clubs with big names on their teams, the emirate will have achieved its ambition of becoming an important footballing nation. The 2022 World Cup will be its first major football event.
A public health challenge
Sporting performance is not the only concern of the Qatari government; it also hopes to use sports events to address one of the country’s major social problems: obesity. The sudden and far-reaching lifestyle changes that took place in the Gulf States following the region’s economic boom have had serious public health repercussions. People are more and more sedentary, deeply attached to using their cars, and eat a diet high in meat and sugar.
This manifests itself in levels of diabetes well above the international average. At the Doha Goals pre-forum in 2012, Saoud Ben Abdoulrahmane Al-Thani, Secretary General of the Qatari Olympic Committee, said ‘sports is a part of Qatar’s 2030 national vision, a vision to promote interactivity and understanding through action and education that will lead to a better life, better health and better well-being.’
The emirate state views this challenge as urgent: the deterioration in the health of its population exerts a financial burden, and shows every sign of getting worse. In a New York Times article on April 26th 210, Justin Grantham, a specialist at a Qatari hospital of sports medicine, warns of the risks to Qatari society: ‘we’re talking serious obesity […] the long-term health consequences will be significant.’
Doha wants to ignite the Qatari population with enthusiasm for sporting activity. Part of its funding of the Aspire Academy goes towards the provision of public fitness programmes. A national day of sport was created in 2012, with the aim of encouraging people to take up new sports. School tournaments have been organised, tracks for running and walking have been constructed, and events were laid on during the 2014 Brazil World Cup.
Sporting champions from various disciplines have been celebrated in an effort to inspire people to practice those sports. During the winter break, football matches were organised between top-ranking teams at the Khalifa Stadium, so young Qataris could come and admire international stars. They identify more closely with national heroes than with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, though. The pressure is on Akram Afif to dazzle on his home turf, to challenge his fans to want to achieve even more than he has.
Raphael le Magoariec holds a Masters in political science (Arabic language), from the National institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations (INALCO), specialising in the Gulf societies. His current research is on "Sporting diplomacy in Qatar: negotiating economic and identity deficits".
This is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners at Orient XXI.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.
 Robert Olabe left the Aspire Academy in August 2016 to return to his post as Sporting Director at Real Socieded.
 « Secretary General addresses Doha Goals Pre-Forum » publication by the Qatar Olympic Committee, 1st July 2012.
 Michael Slackman, « Privilege pulls Qatar towards unhealthy choices ».