About two years ago, on an ordinary March morning in the German speaking provincial Belgian city of Eupen a meeting that can at best be described as surreal took place between an academy sponsored by Qatari royal family and the Belgium league system’s second division regulars KAS Eupen.
At a time when football clubs have become the new playthings for the uber-rich who are not content anymore with a mere yacht, an Airbus, or a private island, a billionaires meeting with representatives of a football club shouldn’t be a headline-grabbing news anymore. But the profile of the club involved and also the country that the team plays in (Belgium is currently ranked 10th in UEFA country coefficients) certainly raised a few eyebrows. More than raising eyebrows though, it hinted at potentially something more at play.
Monarchs from the Middle East nations have started buying clubs where ever they fancy. Not far behind are the Russian oligarchs. Since the purchase of Manchester City in 2008 by the Abu Dhabi royal family, Qatari royal family has purchased Paris Saint Germain, another group with close ties with Qatar royalty has bought the Spanish side Malaga, Royals from Kuwait have purchased stake in English side Nottingham Forest F.C. to count a few in an increasingly growing list.
In all these purchases at least one thing is common; all are well known clubs in European football’s powerhouse nations. It’s that fact which makes the purchase of KAS Eupen all the more puzzling. They certainly do not offer the global reach, headlines, and revenue (if that at all is a concern of their rich patrons) of a Manchester City or a Paris Saint Germain, neither are they a club like Malaga or Nottingham Forest, who can be given massive financial boost in order to strengthen the squad to trigger a rapid rise up the league standings and thereby ensure a continued presence in the Champions League, European football’s premium tournament.
Then why KAS Eupen of all teams? Or why even Belgium for that matter, when numerous struggling clubs from the traditionally strong European football nations will gladly welcome oil money?
The answer lies in the ambition of Qatar to get themselves on the world map in every major field. And football constitutes one. Their national vision “aims at transforming Qatar into an advanced country by 2030, capable of sustaining its own development and providing for a high standard of living for all of its people for generations to come.”
The oil rich nation of mere 1.8 million inhabitants of which staggering 1.5 million are expatriates started a football academy, Aspire Football Dreams which proudly proclaims “by 2020, we will be recognized as the world’s leading sports academy in the development of youth athletes.”
The modus operandi of the academy is something like this: they scout huge number of young boys mostly in Africa, South America, and Asia (they scouted a massive 430,000 youngsters in their first year itself) for potential academy inductees, bring the ones selected to their full fledged training facilities in Senegal and Doha. Mix them up with home grown talents and then try to train them into polished footballers for whom the biggest European clubs would come scavenging for. At least that’s the stated mission.
Now, where does KAS Eupen fit into all of this? Well here’s how. The level of competition that Aspire academy will be able to provide its trainees is at best limited, Qatar is not exactly known for the strength of its football, the academy’s other base in Senegal also can only give a basic level of competition to the young trainees, who will eventually be needed to be tested against the very best to see where they stand, and there is no better place to train young footballers than Europe. This is where KAS Eupen fit in, the top suits at Aspire figured that in order to truly test their protégés at a proper level it would be better if they played in a European league system.
Belgium was chosen among other European nations as they do not limit the participation of non European nationalities as much as other leagues do, therefore a perfect platform to employ as many academy grads as they want which largely comprised of mostly African nationalities with a sprinkling of local Qatari players.
Now, if things were restricted to developing footballers from under privileged backgrounds who would otherwise be languishing in menial jobs in their home countries if Aspire didn’t happen to them it is a novel and remarkable initiative by the Qataris. But looking at their history of “buying” sportsmen to switch allegiance and represent Qatar in international competitions one can’t help but think of the possibility of the same policy being replicated in football.
Saif Saeed Shaheen, Ahmad Hassan Abdullah, Rashid Khaled Jamal, are perfectly legitimate Arabic names of some of the elite athletes from Qatar to have represented the oil rich nation internationally and won laurels to boot. But that does not tell the whole story; Saif was born Stephen Cherono in Kenya, Ahmad was Albert Chepkurui born in Kenya, Rashid was born in Ethiopia and given the name Gemechu Woyecha, before they switched loyalties to Qatar for generous pay and promise of a good life. Qataris unable to produce exceptional athletes of their own used the unique method of buying them in order to claim international glory. Those three are just a few examples; they have bought more than a dozen over a period of time.
Looking at their history of effectively buying players in order to boost their standing on the sports world stage it is not beyond the realms of possibilities that they are going to employ the same methodology in football, where they give citizenship to the aspiring trainees from impoverished backgrounds and get them to represent Qatar at the international level. The idea might appear far fetched but can’t be completely ruled out especially as they have done it in the past.
One of the reasons why a Qatar World Cup was so vehemently opposed apart from the sociopolitical reasons was the fact that Qatar football team does not possess the quality to play in a World Cup, which they will qualify for on the virtue of being the host nation in 2022. The national team is currently ranked a lowly 92nd in the World.
Taking a cynic’s perspective of their academy, they are on their way to save face on the biggest stage of them all. Surely, a sprinkling of naturalized citizens will strengthen their national side on the biggest spectacle of World football come 2022.