Qatari football fans will always remember the night of February 1, 2019. It was when their beloved Maroons became champions of Asia after a 3-1 victory over Japan in the United Arab Emirates. Claiming the AFC Asian Cup title for the first time was a moment of triumph for Qatari football – one made possible by the country’s efforts to develop world-class athletes.
In 2004, Qatar embarked on a journey to become a global leader in the development of young athletes when it established Aspire Academy.
The facility provides Qatar’s future sporting stars with programmes and resources to pursue their goals, while earning preparatory and secondary school education. This includes a football programme for U-12 to U-18 age groups, as well as sports programmes in athletics, fencing, squash and table tennis. Aspire’s student-athletes receive top-class coaching, as well as the best sports science and methodology training.
Located in the Aspire Zone complex, next to FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 venue Khalifa International Stadium, the academy’s programmes operate in some of best sports training facilities in the world. This includes six outdoor football pitches and a FIFA-approved indoor football pitch and stadium.
Aspire’s efforts played a key role in Qatar’s Asian Cup success, as 70% of the squad were academy graduates. This included goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb, who conceded only a single goal during the tournament, defenders Bassam al-Rawi, Abdelkarim Hassan, Tariq Salman, and forwards Akram Afif and Almoez Ali, who finished as the competition’s top scorer on nine goals. Back in 2014, nearly the same group of players claimed the AFC U-19 Championship title in Myanmar.
The academy has also produced Olympic medallists like Mutaz Essa Barshim. He became Qatar’s first Olympic champion in athletics after sharing the men’s high jump title with Italian Gianmarco Tamberi at Tokyo 2020.
Barshim’s sporting behaviour won respect around the globe and is a reflection of the values and ethics that Aspire impresses upon its student-athletes.
These successes are a source of pride for Aspire’s Director of Education and Student Affairs, Badr al-Hay, who has been part of the academy from its inception. “For us, Aspire Academy was a dream that came true – one that was fulfilled through the achievements of our graduates. We faced many challenges at the beginning, but as we gained experience in operating the academy, we started to develop a base of knowledge that now serves as a guide in preparing our students to become champions on the field and achievers in the classroom.”
Al-Hay added: “When Qatar won the Asian Cup in 2019, it showed that our football and sports programmes are making a difference in our graduates achieving their goals and enjoying success on the international stage.”
Qatar’s Asian Cup triumph has proven a source of motivation for Aspire student-footballers like 17-year-old Abdulrahman al-Neama. The left-sided defender/midfielder has already appeared for Qatar at youth level, having helped his country qualify for the 2020 AFC U-16 Championship in Bahrain before the tournament was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The Asian Cup win had a strong influence on me because we saw great players achieve something important,” said al-Neama. “The majority of those players were Aspire Academy graduates, so this has given all of us the passion and dream to have the goal of achieving more big titles for Qatar.”
Aspire’s football programme focuses on the long-term development of individual players. This begins with the academy’s football talent centres that are located across the country, with promising youngsters aged 5-8 earning the chance to train in these environments. Players aged 9-11 are eligible to join Aspire’s feeder teams before earning the chance to join the academy as full-time or part-time student-athletes from the age of 12.
An Al Arabi youth player and Aspire student, al-Neama described his daily routine. “Our day starts early in the morning with breakfast before lessons in the classroom. That is followed by morning training exercises. After that, we have lunch, then return to the classroom for more lessons before more training in the evening. This approach helps us to develop, both as players and students.”
There is much anticipation for how the Maroons will fare as the host nation at this year’s World Cup. For al-Hay, it will be a moment when Aspire’s graduates have the chance to shine on football’s biggest stage.
“I believe our national team is ready to make an impact at this World Cup,” said al-Hay. “I am very optimistic that we can leave a positive impression on the tournament, both in our performances and the way we conduct ourselves as a team. As most of Qatar’s players are graduates of Aspire, I am confident they will show the abilities and values that will make us proud.”
Appearing at a future World Cup has al-Neama and his Aspire classmates fully focused on the task of developing into Qatar’s next generation of football stars. “We must work hard and continue to train, if we want to achieve our dreams. Only then will we succeed at the highest levels.”
Aspire’s efforts played a key role in Qatar’s Asian Cup success, as 70% of the squad were academy graduates.