The stunning defeat of Japan by the Qatari national men’s team in the Asian Cup final took the world of football by surprise. After defeating Lebanon, North Korea, South Korea, and regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Maroons went into the final on February 1 with a 16-0 goal differential, and ultimately beat the Japan side 3-1. Japan is a four-time winner of the tournament and placed third in the Asian Football Association (AFC) ranking. Coming into the tournament, Qatar was ranked outside the top 10 in Asia, and at 93 in the FIFA world ranking.
Ever since being selected in the summer of 2010 to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, Qatar has heavily invested in becoming a football nation. The vehicle for Qatari football success is the Aspire Academy in Doha, one of the world’s biggest sport accommodations and also the most ambitious talent scouting academy in the history of soccer. Hundreds of thousands of youth players have been scouted by academy staff since it was established in 2004. After Qatar won the right to host World Cup 2022, the organization’s talent scouting accelerated even further.
As part of its efforts to cultivate soccer talent, the Aspire Zone Foundation, owner of the Aspire Academy, bought the third-tier Spanish side, Cultural Leonesa, and Belgian premier league outfit, KAS Eupen. The foundation has used both clubs as a way for emerging Qatari talent to secure European experience. 2019 Asian Cup top scorer Almoez Ali played for Cultural and was the first Qatari footballer ever to score in the Spanish league. Nineteen players, of which seven are on the national team, including Almoez Ali, were sent to Eupen by the Aspire Academy to get experience playing in a European first-tier league.
Qatar’s surprise victory in the Asian Cup is also partly a Spanish success. The Aspire Academy is headed by Iván Bravo, former Real Madrid strategy manager. Félix Sánchez Bas, who has been head coach of the Qatari national team since 2017, was a youth trainer at FC Barcelona before relocating to the Aspire Academy in Doha in 2006. After taking over Aspire, Bravo selected some of the finest emerging coaching talent in Spain, bringing over the likes of Roberto Olabe, Mikel Antía, Óscar Fernández, Sergio Alegre, Alberto Fernández-Villanueva, and Carlos Domenech.
Qatar’s football success is not just a result of training. The country has also bolstered the quality of its team by bestowing Qatari citizenship on foreign players or recruiting Qatari nationals born outside the country. Qatari star players Almoez Ali and Bassam Al Rawi are, for example, both nationals but were born outside Qatar.
In order to sustain its current success, Qatar will need to do more than hire stellar coaches and import talent. Instead, it must develop a more robust sports culture inside the country itself. Indeed, while the Maroons received a hero’s welcome upon their return, interest in Qatari football is rather limited in the country. On the last match day of 2018, the country’s two best teams, Al Sadd and Al Duhail, battled for supremacy, with Al Sadd winning. The Al Sadd Stadium (capacity: 13,000) in which the game was played was, however, only half full.