In 2007, a Qatari sports academy named Aspire sent thousands of scouts to identify Africa's brightest soccer prospects. The very best of these young players, all boys born in 1994, became the first class in a project that Aspire called "Football Dreams." This July, that same group showed up at Northern Ireland's Milk Cup, one of the world's most prestigious youth tournaments and—as David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, and Ryan Giggs can attest—a proving ground for future superstars. In the tournament final, Aspire beat Manchester United's youth side 5-1.
It's difficult to understand how a team with no professional affiliation, one that's based in some far-off desert, could make the young stars of the world's soccer powerhouse look like, well, boys. It's without precedent. It just doesn't happen—it can't. Except, of course, that it did. And it happened before, too: Aspire knocked Manchester United out of last year's Milk Cup as well (albeit in a lower age category).
Aspire's remarkable success suggests that the Qataris may have discovered the secrets of elite player development. The project's success has come about thanks to money, shared knowledge, and scouting on a colossal scale. But why does Qatar care about building a youth soccer empire in the first place?
Aspire was established in 2004 by the Middle Eastern emirate's prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, as a developmental center for athletes and scholars. Today roughly 200 students, grades 7 through 12, train in a multitude of sports, year-round. The campus is part of Doha's Aspire Zone, a massive compound that contains shopping malls, hotels, a sports medicine and orthopedic hospital, and the Aspire Dome—the planet's largest indoor sporting complex.
Officially, Football Dreams is a humanitarian project operated by Aspire Academy—a means for poor African prodigies to launch careers in professional soccer. While the vast majority of those chosen for Football Dreams don't spend much time in Qatar—they go instead to a slightly less posh West African sister facility, Aspire Senegal—an Aspire scholarship is still a winning lottery ticket. Each player overcomes long odds to make it through the colossal scouting process. The academy claims its 2010 operation was the largest in the history of world soccer, with more than 600,000 hopefuls from 15 countries taking part.
Aspire's ability to draw players from multiple countries at a relatively young age—most recruits are only 14—sets it apart from clubs in Europe, in which foreign recruitment is more regulated. This is especially true in England, where non-European Union nationals must be 18 and hold a work permit to join a team. The Qataris, by contrast, can sign any African player they want. Their only limit is the size of their seemingly unlimited bank account.
At the very least, Aspire's practices are an improvement on the continent's standard scouting procedures. As Der Spiegel reported last year, nearly one-quarter of all top-flight foreign footballers in Europe are African *. Finding top African talent is big business, and that business is carried out in a thriving black market. Talented boys—sometimes as young as 7, according to a report in the Guardian—are contracted to scouts or agents or ramshackle academies, some of which are roadside clearings lacking goals or proper fields. As the players progress, their contracts are bought and sold, with the trainers keeping most of the profits. It's a system similar to the shady world of youth baseball in the Dominican Republic, where buscones claim ownership of promising players and the young hopefuls are paid in little more than hope.
Youth is a commodity in pro sports, and age deflation is rampant in both the Dominican and Africa—if a talent scout can pass a moderate 20-year-old for an elite 17-year-old, his profit margin goes up. Watching the highlights of this year's Milk Cup, it's hard not to wonder about the age of Aspire's players. They outran Manchester United's best talent a little too easily, and their sharpness on the ball and speed of thought seemed almost too advanced. And then there's Ibrahima Drame, the Senegalese forward who scored a hat trick in the first half. Drame doesn't look like he was born in 1994.
It's hard to care too much about the players' true ages so long as Aspire seeks only to win games and lift soccer prodigies out of poverty. It's a bit more of a problem if the real goal of Football Dreams is to stock the Qatari national team with the best talent money can buy. Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and under FIFA rules, the host country's team automatically qualifies for the tournament. Qatar, whose national team is ranked 88th in the world, has never accomplished this feat on its own. If the Middle Eastern nation is able to draw players from across Africa, the country's soccer prospects will immediately improve. Football Dreams, then, might be a bet hedged against World Cup embarrassment.
Qatar denies it plans to assimilate Football Dreams' players into their World Cup team, pointing out how closely it works with the academy players' respective national football associations. More than 30 Football Dreams athletes have played for their native youth national teams, and no Football Dreams player has ever represented Qatar. The country, though, has a history of paying athletes in other sports to switch allegiance. While Qatar has yet to officially buy any footballers, the size and the scope of the Aspire Academy suggests that the down payments have already been made.
Football Dreams fits in with Qatar's focus on achieving economic growth and international recognition through sport. While Aspire's on-field success and the Football Dreams story have earned Qatar worldwide renown, the Qataris could presumably launch a humanitarian project that would represent a more efficient use of their money. And if elevating African soccer is the goal, investments in playing fields, coaching programs, or equipment would do more to benefit the continent than sending a handful of players to an academy.
As it is, Qatar reserves its resources for the select few. The recruits play against elite opposition every weekend during the school year and travel to international youth tournaments each summer. Manchester United's Milk Cup squad likely knew exactly what it was in for, as the teams face off in Qatar with some regularity. Occasionally, United's first team will come along, their superstars mentoring Aspire's protégées. Since Aspire has no professional affiliation, the world's best academies are willing to share their training procedures and tactics. Aspire also has the money to attract the game's big thinkers. Along with Man U, Barcelona and AC Milan have also made the long trip to Doha.
While the first class in the Football Dreams program has yet to graduate, Aspire's players are slowly assimilating into the international soccer scene. Ibrahima Drame recently represented Senegal at the under-17 level, but he won't be tied to that country's squad until he makes his competitive, first-team debut. Qatar's qualification for the 2014 World Cup is far from secure, and Drame—should the Qataris offer him citizenship—would likely upgrade his new country's forward line. Will he stay with Senegal or suit up for Qatar? Once Drame makes his choice, the real motives behind the world's most ambitious experiment in player development will become clear.
Correction, Sept. 15, 2011: This piece originally stated that nearly one-quarter of soccer players in Europe are African. (Return to the corrected sentence.)