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It paints a complex picture.
In the past seven years Qatar's Aspire Football Dreams program has screened 3.5 million boys, mostly from developing countries in Africa. The best of them have been sent to live and train at either the main academy in Doha or the satellite academy in Senegal. They get room and board, a free education, and a monthly spending allowance, and their families get up to $5,000 from Qatar.
It's well funded and highly professional, with a space-age training facilities and scouts and coaches who have experience with top European clubs.
Some of Aspire's youth teams are now among the best in the world.
This all sounds good. Aspire markets itself as a humanitarian initiative, and it's hard to deny that giving scholarships to young boys from the poorest parts of the world is a good thing.
When you ask why Qatar is doing this, though, things get complicated.
Initially, people thought Aspire was a way for Qatar to bring in foreigners to play for its national team. Qatar has never qualified for a World Cup. The national team is ranked 100th in the world, and finished fourth behind Uzbekistan in 2014 World Cup qualifying. It's a country of 300,000 people with zero soccer history. Just as Qatar has to build the stadiums and roads and training facilities necessary to host a big soccer tournament from scratch, it has to build a national team from next to nothing.
But Aspire executives told the NYT that they have no intention to use Aspire as a system of training and naturalizing players for the 2022 Qatari national team.
“If we naturalize a few players, what will happen? Everyone will kill us. Everyone will see. We are not stupid, and neither is anyone else," Andreas Bleicher, the program's director, said.
The idea is to have Qatari boys train alongside talented African players, thus raising the level of competition, they claim.
Still, look at the big picture. Qatar doesn't have a World Cup-level national team. Now, with its first World Cup on the horizon, it's funding a worldwide talent search for young players and developing them into pros. With its history of paying foreign athletes to compete in international competitions under the Qatar flag, it'd hardly be a shock if some of these Aspire players were naturalized.
The other main criticism of Aspire goes back to something that has plagued the Qatar World Cup — bribery.
Before the FIFA executive committee voted on the 2022 World Cup host nation, Aspire opened scouting operations in the home countries of some of these voters.
From the NYT:
"Of the 24 nations with delegates on the FIFA executive committee, five were countries in which Aspire Football Dreams was operating, the [Aspire marketing 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.'"
Qatari denied that Aspire played any part in its bid.
A less sinister explanation for why the Qatari royal family is pouring money into Aspire is that Qatar wants to be respected as a sporting nation. Qatar itself is an experiment in forced development, and that has extended to soccer.
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