By the time the whistle is blown for the first time at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar will be hoping to become the first Asian side to win their first-ever match in the competition, with the previous 11 teams either losing or drawing at their debut in the world flagship football competition.
Ecuador will be Qatar’s opponent in the first-ever match for the hosts on the biggest of stages and Felix Sanchez’s side will surely be properly motivated to write history on their home pitch.
While the rookies are surely inexperienced at this level, the preparations for this moment have been big, with the foundation being laid in 2004, when the Aspire Academy was founded by an Emiri Decree.
A state-of-the-art facility was built in the Aspire Zone, which includes the Khalifa International Stadium, a 50.000-seater that will host eight matches at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, including the bronze medal match, the Hamad Aquatic Center and the Aspire Dome, the world’s largest indoor multi-purpose sports hall.
But the most important feature of the Aspire Academy was surely its know-how, with renowned specialists being brought from all over the world to instill the sports culture that Qatar was lacking two decades ago.
This approach brought praise even from the highest-rated managers, such as Sir Alex Ferguson, who had the opportunity to bring his Manchester United squad in 2010 for a training camp.
“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. 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,” said Ferguson.
But how did the Aspire Academy really influence Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup team?
When the competition was awarded to Qatar, in December 2010, the wheels were already in motion for the Asian side to improve their level on the global stage. Four years later, at the AFC U-19 Championship, Qatar secured the trophy, with a 1-0 win against North Korea in the final.
The catch? All of Qatar’s 23 players were Aspire Academy student-athletes, with eight of them also being in the squad that wrote history in 2019 to win the AFC Asian Cup, with a 3-1 win over continental heavyweights Japan. That win will surely be etched in the memory of every fan in Asia and especially in Qatari football, as they conceded a single goal and scored 19 on the course to win the trophy.
The common denominator, aside from the Aspire alumni, was Felix Sanchez, the Spanish coach who cut his teeth in Barcelona’s academy, La Masia, whose career is basically tied in a knot with the Aspire Academy and Qatar.
Sanchez, 47, has served as a coach for the Aspire Academy between 2006 and 2013, following up with a stint as the Qatar U-19 coach between 2013 and 2017 and the Qatar senior national team coach since 2007, while also leading the U-20 side between 2017 and 2020.
The grind has been immense, with Qatar featuring in several high-profile tournaments, like the Copa America and the Concacaf Gold Cup, losing the semi-finals against hosts USA in the latter tournament in 2019, by a single goal in the final minutes.
Players like Abdelkarim Hassan, Almoez Ali and Akram Afif have also made the step-by-step journey alongside Sanchez, improving their skills at the Aspire Academy before being launched into the orbit in senior football.
And the Spanish coach really underlines Aspire’s role in the growth of Qatari football, in an interview for the Spanish outlet Marca.
“I worked for many years at Aspire. The Academy and the Federation go hand in hand, our training center is just another part of Aspire. Aspire has been running for 16 years now, it’s a very successful long-term project, and in football, there is usually no patience to sustain projects. It is one of the parts of the biggest success. Without this project, we would not have been able to give this training to the players from a young age, and the fact that so many have made it to the first team is the best sign,” said Sanchez.
Whether Qatar will perform at the highest level and progress from its group, is still to be seen. But the Aspire Academy project in itself and the path it gave to Qatari footballers is surely one of the feel-good stories of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Under their Foundation’s brand, two teams from Europe, Belgium’s K.A.S. Eupen, and Spain’s Cultural Leonesa have been owned by the Aspire Academy, with several high-profile Qatari players featuring for the two sides in the past, before returning to their home country to prepare for the World Cup.
But the main win is not just only a result or some trophies, rather than helping football grow throughout the whole world, with some specific know-how, a great plan, and hard work.