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Qatari Aspire Academy: Helping or Headhunting?

Heralded as one the world’s best soccer academies, the Qatari Aspire Academy seeks to improve the standard of Qatar’s footballing pool through top class coaching and competitive matches. In pursuit of its aims the Academy provides full scholarships to foreign footballers with the intention that such foreign imports can improve the standard of Qatari football. It is this aspect of the Academy that we will discuss in this article.

The scholarships have been presented as both a humanitarian effort to help those in underdeveloped countries gain access to State of the Art football coaching and as a modern from of slavery. Although the Academy has the backing of FIFA, the UN and Barcelona it has been accused of effectively dealing in flesh. The question therefore is this, is the Academy helping or headhunting underprivileged athletes?

To answer this question, we need to look at what the Academy is and what is it being accused of. According to its website, the Aspire Academy is a globally recognized national sports academy for the development of Qatar’s athletically talented boys and acts as a symbol of Qatar’s sporting ambitions and pride.

In pursuit of increasing the skills of Qatar’s promising athletes and through its Aspire Dream programme, over 700,000 footballers in 14 underdeveloped countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America are screened annually. Those deemed to be of a high enough standard are awarded scholarships to the Academy where they will receive top class coaching and a high school education. So far this sounds pretty humanitarian, and with UN backing it is certainly in good company. What’s the problem?

Issues arise once we delve deeper into the Aspire programme. Critics have noted that of the 14 underdeveloped regions surveyed by Aspire scouts, many countries are ones without a recognized footballing pedigree. What would lead Aspire to send out scouts to places such as Guatemala or Thailand in search of football’s next prodigy? Power politics perhaps? Although FIFA was created as an independent body, Guatemala and Thailand both have members on FIFA’s Executive Committee. British newspapers, such as the Guardian, repeatedly complained that this was a massive conflict of interest at the time when the 2022 World Cup nominations were being voted on.

As we are all aware, the 2022 bid is now under scrutiny so time will tell how true this accusation is. Interestingly, no Guatemalan player has yet earned a permanent scholarship with Aspire and there is little talent, as yet, coming out of Thailand. But is the Aspire programme simply a Machiavellian scheme to buy influence? Perhaps we in the West are simply cynical about these things and are unfair to scoff at the notion that the next Lionel Messi may come from Thailand. Let’s give the Academy a pass on this criticism for now.

Another accusation leveled against the Aspire Academy is that it is a means of buying talent for the Qatari National Team. Under FIFA regulations if a player spends more than five years in a country he can declare for that nation. The Academy brings in players from the ages of 12 to 14, which means that by the time these players are 18 or 20, they can declare for Qatar.

Whilst the Academy is quick to state that it is not trying to naturalize talented foreigners, recent Qatari history would suggest otherwise. In the past Qatar has offered passports to talented runners from Africa and weightlifters from Bulgaria. In the current Qatar team there are three naturalized players, Brazilian midfielder Fabio Cesar, who spent three years at Napoli; Uruguayan striker Sebastien Soria, and goalkeeper Qasam Barhan from Senegal. What’s more, in 2010, Daniel Goumou, a Guinean footballer who was brought to Qatar through the Aspire Academy, declared for Qatar.

Again the Academy states that players are under no obligation to declare for Qatar. Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, a former Cameroon international and president of Culture Foot Solidaire, a Paris-based organization working to stop the illegal trafficking of African footballers to Europe, compares the Academy method of acquiring players to “modern-day slavery.” Naturalized players are not a new phenomena in soccer, De Stefano played for three national teams after all. We in Ireland have had our fair share of success with the ‘Granny Rule’. Yet when one looks at the Academy’s method of acquiring players there is something distasteful.

The UN may support the Academy as a humanitarian exercise; Lionel Messi may be on the payroll but just because you buy support doesn’t mean something underhand isn’t occurring. The Academy argues that it brings in foreign athletes as a means of improving the Qatari players and also as a humanitarian exercise. Are critics being unfair? The more naturalized players from Africa and other regions Qatar acquires in future years will answer this question. At the moment, however, it does appear that there is evidence that the Academy is headhunting players.

The final criticism leveled against the Academy as a form of headhunting is relatively recent. In June 2012, Aspire Academy purchased second division Belgian Club Eupen; something that largely went under the radar for most media outlets but it is perhaps the most significant move to date by the Qatari institution. The idea, until now, has been that the Academy will help its players find their way into European clubs.

With the purchase of Eupen, however, they have removed the need for a middleman. Eupen now has no less than seven Aspire graduates in its team and has become a shop window for the Aspire athletes. Is this helping the athletes? After all, having been trained by top coaches in Qatar, Eupen allows them to the opportunity to move to greater pastures in Europe. But something just feels wrong about this exercise.

The Academy is going into underprivileged areas, picking the most promising players, developing them and then selling them on for profit at a later date. Again, this is not new practice for football clubs, clubs such as Charlton and West Ham have prided themselves on the fact their academies produce talented local players who have been sold for handsome fees. But rarely have we seen anything on the scale of the Academy.

What’s more, local clubs in some of the underprivileged areas the Academy frequents complain, anonymously, that the Academy infringes their ability to attract aspiring players. The Academy states that it only visits those areas normally ignored by clubs, but recent history suggests that they do work in populated areas as well. This lends itself to the claim that the Academy is headhunting players, if not for naturalization, then for profit and prestige.

Looking at the criticisms of the Academy in detail, it is hard to see it as solely a humanitarian institution. Yes Aspire does great work in Africa with anti-malaria campaigns and funding for local teams. But does this excuse what is arguably one of the largest scale attempts at headhunting in football?

Is it not the role of FIFA or the UN itself to help underprivileged regions rather than a country trying to buy itself a respectable world image?

At the start of this article we asked is the Academy helping or headhunting? The answer is both.

Players are provided coaching and education but the method of acquiring players seems more akin to cynical headhunting. Will anything be done? With the backing of the UN, FIFA, Barcelona and a host of other big names the answer appears no. Should something be done? Time will tell. What is necessary however is that greater scrutiny of the Academy be brought about and soon.

Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.

About Conor Heffernan

Conor is a recent graduate History and Political Science graduate with an interest in health and football. He has been a long-suffering Leeds United fan since the late 1990s but as always remains optimistic for next season!

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