One step beyond

Qatar’s World Cup win was a surprise to many, but Steve Wilson argues that maybe it shouldn’t have come as such a shock

When pictures of public gatherings in Doha and London were beamed across rolling news channels on the evening of December 2, it wasn’t just the palm trees in the background, or lack of them, that helped the viewer with their geography.

Glum, sullen faces of disbelief in a damp Trafalgar Square contrasted sharply with joyous celebrations on a balmy evening on the Corniche that runs along the harbour of the Qatari capital. But despite the outward appearance of a football-consumed nation celebrating its unlikely ascent to the top table of the world game, all is not necessarily as it seems.

The last serious bout of football flag waving followed the 2006 Asian Games, which Qatar won as hosts. Exuberance was scarce two months earlier at the Al-Gharrafa Stadium following a much more low-key victory when Qatar confirmed top spot in qualification for the 2007 Asian Cup. The opponents may have only been Hong Kong and qualification had already been secured, but I was one of only around 350 in the stadium that night, despite entry being free.

Crowds for matches in the ten-team top division rarely swell beyond a few thousand. Even in the days when Gabriel Batistuta and the De Boer brothers topped up their pension pots with gentle seasons in the sun – a practice now eschewed in favour of luring South American journeymen – interest was muted. They used to raffle off Toyota Landcruisers at half-time to try to swell 
the crowd.

Qataris love success – visiting teams from Milan and Madrid hold more of a draw than the top local teams. The domestic league, however, is poor by international standards, even by Asian standards. The last continental success for a Qatari club came in 1989.Qatar have never qualified for a World Cup finals on merit. At the last Gulf Cup they failed to get out of a group containing such heavyweights as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Whether that will change in the next 12 years could depend on an initiative begun three years ago, one that may already have reaped dividends in landing the World Cup in the first place.

In 2007 Qatar’s national sporting academy, Aspire, a  school with sporting facilities and international coaches that would be the envy of most Premier League academies, launched Football Dreams. Initially centred on Africa, it was to be an annual X Factor-style search for a football star. Half a million boys born in 1994 were assessed in seven countries and a handful eventually given scholarships to the academy.

Endorsed by Pelé, and with the involvement of Unicef and Nike, the scheme was cast as a humanitarian exercise. A legacy of talent-spotting and youth development was to be left across developing countries. A sister academy was established in Senegal. The boys brought to the Middle East, the organisers were at pains to stress, would be under no obligation to take Qatari citizenship when they turned 18. Though suspicions linger. One of the first recruits, Daniel Goma from Guinea, is on the fringes of the national team.

It is near impossible to get citizenship in Qatar – applicants must be resident in the country for 25 years, speak Arabic and give up their birth passport. Rules can be broken, however. Footballers, as with Kenyan steeplechasers and Bulgarian weightlifters, are seen as “special cases”. Roughly half of the current Qatar squad were not born in the country – most are from neighbouring Arab states but it also includes a naturalised Uruguayan and Brazilian.

Football Dreams’ philanthropic motives have been further muddied by the expansion of the scheme once Qatar bid for 2022 hosting rights. Targeting boys from Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana makes sense whether you suspect the Qataris of farming for future players, or if you accept the official line that talent coming in to train with local youngsters to raises the overall standards. Yet Football Dreams now also has centres in Guatamala, Panama and Thailand. None has yielded scholarship offers, though all three of those nations were represented on the 24-man voting committee, reduced to 22 in the wake of corruption investigations by the troublesome English press.

In keeping with FIFA’s aversion to transparency, we do not know if they voted for Qatar. But funds and expertise exported to their under-resourced federations are likely to have counted for more than the FA’s offer of a friendly match with Thailand – an offer that was immediately withdrawn after the vote in one of the pettiest responses to 
England’s failure.

Amid all the hand-wringing over Qatar’s stunning victory, doubts over the weather, cultural norms that outlaw homosexuality and anyone with an Israeli stamp on their passport entering the country, few have stopped to consider the footballing landscape. The Qataris themselves, not for the first time, may have been several steps ahead of their complacent rivals in that too.

From WSC 288 February 2011