FIFA's decision to award the World Cup to Qatar in 2022 has received its fair share of criticism.
Most commentators seem to be condescendingly focusing upon the fact that the country is too small to host such a major tournament. There has also been mention that the country has no past footballing pedigree. The Middle Eastern peninsula does however have a growing reputation within professional sporting circles as being one of the locations of choice for major events over the last 20 years.
At the very epicentre of Qatar's hopes for 2022 will be the ASPIRE Academy. Since its inception in 2004, the Academy has risen to the forefront of leading sporting centres around the world. While Dubai and Abu-Dhabi have moved to attract the world’s business clientele, Qatar has taken quite a unique step and has looked to improve its name by becoming a centre for sporting excellence.
The Academy has a distinct trend towards football, however in more recent times it has also introduced table tennis, squash and athletics experts as the academy looks to develop future sports stars in other fields.
In 2008 when the Academy's very first class graduated after four years, Hicham El Guerrouj was asked to say a few words at the ceremony. He used some sage words to advise the coaches and students.
"When the ASPIRE Academy was started, it was with the objective to produce athletes like me and footballers like Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho. The dream is on the right path. But the people in charge should know the goals can be attained and that is not difficult, but one has to be patient.
"Internationally, ASPIRE is recognized as a pioneering project to discover and develop world-class athletic talent in Qatar. The students who have graduated today are among the first pioneers and they deserve our congratulations and support."In developing its name the Aspire Academy has sponsored the world famous Toulon International Youth Football Festival for the last six years.
In 2010 Qatar fielded a team in the tournament for the second year running. Of their 20 man squad, nine are either former or current Aspire students. Such is the international importance of the festival that every single team of an elite level sends representatives to scout potential future stars.
Last year Gabriel Obertan won the MVP award and was snapped up by Manchester United almost immediately after the competition.
In something of a perfect symmetry Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson then chose to use the Academy to train in after inclement weather in England.
Sir Alex Ferguson was obviously enthusiastic to see the Academy.
"I have heard a lot about the fantastic facilities at Aspire from my coaching staff and with the weather being so good at this time of the year in Qatar," he said. "It was the perfect opportunity to test them out. The welcome we have received has been superb and we have already done an excellent training session that just would not have been possible in the worst conditions in the UK."In September the ASPIRE Academy had probably their greatest achievement after one of their graduates was selected for the Qatari international side.
Fahad Khalfan received his call up after impressing for his club side Al-Rayyan during preseason.
A very happy Wade Clews, Sporting Director at ASPIRE, spoke about what a significant moment this was for the Academy.
“To have one of our players make his full debut for Qatar is a major boost for all of the staff at ASPIRE. Fahad improved enormously last year under the guidance of our coaches.
“Working in what is proving to be a successful system, the debut of Fahad demonstrates that ASPIRE has the necessary knowledge, support system and infrastructure to prepare young footballers to excel and go on to represent the national teams of Qatar."Head football coach Michael Browne saw the call-up as a step in the right direction and huge justification for the Academy in general but that massive hurdles still had to be overcome if the Academy's young stars were to make an impact upon the domestic game.
“The main difficulty we face at the moment is that the majority of our 1991 and 1992 players are concentrated at a small number of clubs and it is difficult for them to get regular first team games which are what they need,” Browne said.
“If this problem can be overcome then I am very confident that in the not so distant future the vast majority of Senior National Team players will be from ASPIRE.”
“It is often difficult for the coaches at the bigger clubs to play young players but it is clear that Paulo Autori at Al Rayyan thinks highly of several of our ASPIRE graduates and is confident that they can step up and perform at first team level. Fortunately for Fahad, Paulo gave him his chance and he has now been able to make the next step and represent Qatar.”It is quite clear that the Academy has leaped forward significantly in just six years and has already begun to produce sportsmen of a very high calibre after just six years as an entity.
Given the rapid progress so far, many in the bid team for Qatar 2022 will be hoping that the ASPIRE Academy classes of the next ten years will provide the backbone for their World Cup team as they negotiate a steep learning curve.