Qatar Has a World Cup Date. It Still Needs a World-Class Team.
On the sideline of a grass soccer field a few hundred yards from the recently renovated Khalifa International Stadium, Bora Milutinovic is receiving a stream of well-wishers in four languages. Milutinovic, who has taken the national teams of five countries to the World Cup, shakes hands with dozens of people, seamlessly switching among Serbian, Spanish, German and English, as a match begins in front of him.
At 73, Milutinovic is unlikely to be tasked with guiding a sixth country in a World Cup, but he may have a bigger and more difficult job than that these days. He is now a soccer adviser to members of Qatar’s royal family and a technical adviser for the Aspire Academy, the vast and controversial talent-spotting operation financed by Qatar’s government. Created by royal decree in 2004, Aspire was given the monumental task of nurturing a national team that can compete with the world’s best when the country hosts the 2022 World Cup.
On this evening, Milutinovic is checking on the progress of Qatar’s under-19 national team, which is playing its Croatian counterpart in the final of a friendly tournament.
“It changes slowly,” Milutinovic said. “Every day it gets better.”
But perhaps not quickly enough
Five years before Qatar hosts the World Cup, and as dozens of nations book their places this week into next summer’s tournament in Russia, the state of soccer in Qatar is still very much a work in progress. Construction projects for the tournament continue to reshape the country, and more than a half-dozen new stadiums are rising. But the project to build a world-class national soccer team remains an expensive work in progress.
Last month, Qatar ensured that it would be the first host country to have never qualified for a World Cup. The national team’s 3-1 defeat to Syria in the penultimate round of Asian qualification for Russia 2018 officially dashed any lingering hope that Qatar would earn a place in the event on merit before it is granted one on protocol.
It was a humbling failure, and it provided new ammunition to the critics of Qatar’s successful bid to host the tournament, which has been bedeviled by accusations of corruption and worker rights abuses. Many point to those factors, but also to the absence of a deep-rooted soccer-playing culture, as proof that Qatar should not be hosting the tournament at all.
Yet there has been soul-searching within the country, too, about Qatar’s approach to building a team; about whether past efforts to naturalize foreign players should be ramped up, or abandoned; about whether the importing of expensive, aging stars has raised the level of the domestic top division, the Qatar Stars League; and about the success of the Aspire Academy, a vast complex in Doha that now coaches tens of thousands of athletes across different sports.
The show’s set is modeled on a traditional majlis, a large, square room found in many Arab homes where guests are invited to meet and talk. The show regularly attracts big names; Lionel Messi has been a guest. Today’s lineup includes the former Iraq captain Younis Mahmoud.