At some point before the Socceroos landed in Doha, somebody – quite possibly a migrant worker – spent a not-insignificant amount of quality time with a pair of high-end hedge shears. By the start of this week, when the team started arriving at their World Cup training base, the maintenance was complete. The shrubbery in question, perfectly spaced and perched upon a neatly cultivated hill separating their two assigned training pitches, was fashioned into letters spelling out “ASPIRE ACADEMY”.
In July, when the Socceroos announced they would stay here for the duration of the tournament, a brief public narrative formed that their late qualification had forced Football Australia staff to settle for second-rate dormitory accommodation while their higher-profile counterparts opted for secluded wellness resorts (Germany), uber-rich water parks (Belgium) and hotels resembling palaces (France).
This rendering of the Australian camp as subpar is not close to reality. Because the Aspire Academy does not start and end with diverting topiary. The facility is, like much of what Qatar’s petrodollars produce, elite to the point of almost incomparability with anything else anywhere in the rest of the world.
Located on the western side of Doha, it has trained and educated thousands of young athletes, mainly in football but also in other sports including athletics, fencing, squash and table tennis. The base features eight football pitches including one in the Aspire Dome, a rather large (huge) indoor climate-controlled training complex.
In all, it cost $1.3bn to build. Once that was done, in 2004, it was launched by Pelé. Diego Maradona was there too. It has since been praised by Zinedine Zidane, Glenn Hoddle, Sven-Göran Eriksson and, more recently, David Beckham. (We will come to Tim Cahill in a bit.) Suffice to say it is kind of a big deal.
A crucial element of the Socceroos’ arrangement is that – like Qatar’s national team – they are staying on site (Ghana are also training here minus the sleepovers), eradicating a key logistical irritation for the players of having to travel between a hotel and training each day.
“It’s refreshing,” midfielder Riley McGree said on Wednesday. “I think those bus rides, especially after training when it’s a little bit of a long one, aren’t great. But being right on the training pitch you literally walk in, walk out, go back to your room, go to meals, go to physio and everything.
“It definitely makes it a whole lot more convenient and the facilities here are second to none, so there’s been no complaints. It’s been awesome.”
In terms of setting Australia up for the best possible chance of on-field success, it is indeed awesome. All the more because staff have furnished the place in green and gold and motivational messaging, brought their in-house chef and even flown in a barista.
And yet the plush surroundings also feel somewhat uneasy. Aspire, which has been showered in state funding for the best part of two decades, is the centrepiece of Qatar’s football project, a project accused of sportswashing, corruption and human rights abuses. The Garcia report of 2014, which examined the bidding process for the 2022 World Cup, states the academy’s resources were used to “curry favour” with Fifa executive committee members.
Aspire has also come under scrutiny for its Football Dreams project, a mass talent-scouting operation across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Launched in 2007, it is self-described as “a unique humanitarian project”; critics say it has been a vehicle for peddling influence in other Fifa nations as well as naturalising talented kids in time to field a credible World Cup national team.
Qatar denies this, but Aspire’s efforts have nonetheless yielded results. In 2014, Qatar won the Asian U19 championship, and in 2018 the senior team won the Asian Cup – both times under former La Masia coach Félix Sánchez. More than two-thirds of the squad had been trained at Aspire. Since being awarded the World Cup in 2010, the team have climbed from No 113 to No 51 in the Fifa rankings.
However you spin it, Aspire’s legacy is angsty, featuring both good and bad and plenty in between. Regardless, as a state-run enterprise it is difficult to think of it as anything but synonymous with Qatar’s broader football agenda. It has also become synonymous with Tim Cahill, Aspire’s chief sports officer, who is, in turn, synonymous with the Socceroos. That complicates Australia’s place in the landscape.
In 2020, the former striker and current national treasure made the decision to become a Qatar 2022 ambassador. Several months ago he was critical in securing the Socceroos’ setup here. On Tuesday the 42-year-old was announced as part of Australia’s official World Cup staff under the title of “head of delegation”.
His first quote in the media release read: “The Aspire Academy is recognised as one of the world’s leading sports academies and I am thrilled that we have been able to secure these facilities for our national team during this tournament.”
This is not to say the Socceroos should not have accepted Aspire’s hospitality in good faith. The players have made a strong and nuanced statement on human rights when they were not obliged to do so. It is also nigh on impossible to play at a World Cup without also having somewhere to train and sleep in the host country. More than anything, the situation is just one example of the complexities that exist within the larger, thorny web that constitutes this uncomfortable tournament and all its trappings.
There is a sense Australia may be treading delicately with Qatar, a fellow Asian Football Confederation member where the Socceroos not only played numerous qualifiers during the pandemic, but will undoubtedly have to return in the future.