Aspire Academy inspires Qatar football

“Aspire Academy is the Qatar national team. It is the same body. We have the QSL [Qatar Stars League], QFA [Qatar Football Association], Aspire Academy, all under the same umbrella. And some infrastructure in place for many, many years to come, to make sure we can keep making and nurturing talent,” says Tim Cahill, former Aussie World Cupper and Chief Sports Officer of Aspire Academy.

Former Australia footballer Tim Cahill attributes Qatar’s rise as a footballing nation to the Aspire Academy. He is now the Chief Sports Officer at the academy.   -  Santadeep Dey

Qatar — 50 years since making its official international football debut against Bahrain in March 1970 — has emerged as a continental football superpower, winning three Arabian Gulf Cups and in 2019 a maiden Asian Cup title.

The West Asian country also reached the semifinals of the 2021 Gold Cup, losing narrowly (1-0) to the USA. Earlier, a hard-fought 2-1 defeat to Lionel Messi-led Argentina in the 2019 Copa America had also enhanced the reputation of the Maroons.

The country and the national team are now gearing up to host the FIFA World Cup next year and make its debut in the quadrennial extravaganza.

Former Australia international Tim Cahill attributes Qatar’s rise as a footballing nation to the Aspire Academy which was set up in 2004.

“70 per cent of the squad that won the Asian Cup was developed at the Aspire Academy. All members of the under-19 team, which won the 2014 AFC under-19 Championship, are from here,” Cahill, now Chief Sports Officer at the academy, says.

Right in the centre of the ritzy foyer of the Aspire Academy, there is an installation — ‘Reaching for Gold’ — with many hands trying to grab a medal. The structures convey the philosophy of the state­of­the­art facility — “developing champions in sports and life”.   -  Santadeep Dey

 

At the Aspire Academy — located in the heart of Doha’s Sports City, adjacent to the iconic Khalifa International Stadium — visitors are greeted by the imposing eight-ton monument — ‘Rise Through Education’ — by celebrated Italian sculptor Lorenzo Quinn. It shows a pair of hands placing the planet on a child’s palms, the arms forming a circle above an open book. Just beyond the entrance and right in the centre of the ritzy foyer, there is another installation — ‘Reaching for Gold’ — with many hands trying to grab a medal. The structures convey the philosophy of the state-of-the-art facility — “developing champions in sports and life”.

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“This is one of the best institutions in the world. We have had every coach, there is in the world, come here. We got Messi, [Diego] Maradona. 80 football clubs are a part of our Global Summit. We have had [Mauricio] Pochettino, [Jose] Mourinho, [Carlo] Ancelotti... the list is crazy. I call it the University of Football,” Cahill says, as we walk past a wall of autographed jerseys.

The student-athletes are selected through a nationwide talent identification programme and Cahill, who has played in the Indian Super League, feels such a programme might be difficult to replicate in a country of India’s size. “We can be a bit more specific here because of the smaller population. We have the option to ask ourselves, ‘do they really want to play football?’ Some of them may like high jumping or volleyball,” he says.

An indoor football pitch at the Aspire Academy. The Academy also has a Footbonaut, designed to improve a player’s reaction time. The futuristic pass­master can only be found in Bundesliga clubs Borussia Dortmund and Hoffenheim   -  Santadeep Dey

 

Academic courses are part of the daily routine for the 300 boys, aged 12-18. The seniors are allowed to board five days a week, while the younger students can only stay for two days. Besides football, it also concentrates on other Olympic sports — athletics, fencing, squash, table tennis, swimming, golf, shooting and archery. “My vision for the future is fundamental skills within school programmes. I focus heavily on the grassroots,” Cahill adds.

A Footbonaut, in the sports science facility, gives you a glimpse of Aspire’s aspirations. Designed to improve a player’s reaction time, the futuristic pass-master can only be found in Bundesliga clubs Borussia Dortmund and Hoffenheim.

Speaking about the often-drawn comparison with the famed La Masia of Barcelona, Cahill says: “The talent pool of La Masia is what is different from here. They can get players from any part of the world. They have a philosophy and infrastructure that assist the type of players they have. Not saying Barcelona’s philosophy and identity can’t be put here but we also have to adapt to the quality of the player and his skills.”

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Cahill is optimistic about the Qatar national team’s fortunes at the World Cup and beyond. “Aspire Academy is the national team. It is the same body. We have the QSL [Qatar Stars League], QFA [Qatar Football Association], Aspire Academy, all under the same umbrella. And some infrastructure in place for many, many years to come, to make sure we can keep making and nurturing talent. Hopefully, we can find Qatari players playing overseas in the future – in Europe or some of the other bigger competitions,” he says.

Cahill feels a lot of countries can learn from the peninsular nation. The striker, who played for Jamshedpur FC in 2018-19, says, “[India needs to have a] Structure. An identity. I think they are already trying to implement something like that. The main thing is just knowing where you are going and how you are going to get there. Sometimes, institutions like this could take five to 10 years. So, it is about having a lot of patience as well.”

[The writer was in Qatar at the invitation of the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy]

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