Football's Biggest Talent Contest Qatar Scouts for Tomorrow's Soccer Superstars

Qatar has embarked on an unprecedented search for the next generation of soccer megastars. "Football Dreams" trials have given aspiring footballers the chance to make it big -- Qatar, meanwhile, hopes to increase its chances of becoming a World Cup host.

By Christoph Biermann

Ivan Sekazza wears the No. 10 and has written "Jesus" on his white football socks with a felt-tip pen. He is one of the footballers playing under a giant banner reading "Football Dreams Final" draped across the Aspire Dome in Doha, Qatar. From the sidelines he looks like a short professional player -- but Ivan, who comes from Uganda, is only 13.

He hails from the Ugandan capital Kampala, where his four older brothers raised him after his mother died five years ago. He wants to become a professional, so that one day he can repay his brothers for everything they have done for him. The local priest prayed for the aspiring footballer before he left for Qatar. The priest told Ivan to study the words of the Lord. Now Ivan reads the bible every evening, then again at 4 a.m., and once again after he gets up. He reads psalm 119: "So shall I talk of Thy wondrous works."

A few months ago, Ivan heard that men from a country called Qatar had come to Uganda to find the best football players in the country. They organized elimination matches, and as those matches progressed, Ivan eventually emerged as the best player among other boys from his neighborhood, his city and even his country. He boarded an airplane for the first time when he flew to Nairobi to compete with the 50 best players born in the same year, 1995, from Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. Now he is one of the last 25 of 544,000 boys, all born in 1995, from nine African countries, Paraguay and Vietnam.

This is the biggest talent contest in the history of football and it lasts four weeks. Qatar is searching for tomorrow's football star, a search that involves putting the children through rigorous tests. They train daily, and then, in six matches, they play for their future. The three best players are invited to stay in Doha, where they are trained to become professional football players. The sixth match, the decisive test match, is against a youth team from AC Milan. Ivan kicks off.

Qatar must be a paradise for a boy from Kampala. There are no slums here, the streets are paved, the apartments have electricity and running water, it costs nothing to go to the doctor and attend school. Even when the summer sun is at its fiercest, the temperature in the world's biggest arena remains a comfortable 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit).

The football stadium in the Aspire Dome can accommodate 8,000 fans and the track and field arena has room for another 3,000. The arena, which cost $1 billion (€770 million) to build, also contains fencing tracks, squash courts and a swimming stadium. When the Asian Games were held in Doha more than two years ago, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, invested $3 billion (€2.3 billion). At the opening ceremony, his own son Mohammed lit the flame while riding a black stallion.

Qatar has one of the world's highest per-capita incomes, a distinction it will continue to hold for a long time. The emirate's natural gas wells in the Persian Gulf will continue producing for at least another 100 years. The government fund with which Qatar's ruling family manages its investments is worth more than $50 billion, with money invested in banks and companies around the world, including Airbus. While other rulers on the Arabian Peninsula build shopping malls or collect art, the Emir of Qatar dreams of turning his country into a major force in the world of sports. "Sports is the best way to reach everyone around the globe," says the Emir. His son, Crown Prince Tamim, the head of Qatar's National Olympic Committee, believes that it is more important to be a member of the International Olympic Committee than the United Nations.

Spectacular "Laptop Stadium"

Ambition and megalomania seem boundless in this country, which is less than half the size of Belgium and, beyond the capital, consists of nothing but desert. Sporting facilities, some of them spectacular, are being built everywhere in Qatar. One of them is nicknamed the "laptop stadium," because two-thirds of it is underground and the grandstand protrudes above the ground like the screen of an opened laptop computer.

Doha has hosted a tennis tournament in the ATP Tour since 1993, with prize money of $1 million today. Boris Becker won the first tournament in 1993, and this year the winner was Andy Murray. The golf pros on the European Tour play for $2.5 million in prize money at the Qatar Masters, inaugurated in 1998. The tournament is held in the winter, when outside temperatures are relatively bearable, as is a professional cycling event.

Qatar even threw its hat into the ring for the 2016 Olympic Games. Because of its unsuitable climate, the desert nation was eliminated in the preliminary round, but now it hopes to host the football World Cup in 2018 or 2022.

The Aspire Dome is both the centerpiece of the ruling family's ambitions and the site of an academy, where 300 experts from more than 60 countries have gathered to turn Qatar's athletic talent -- in track and field, table tennis and squash, sailing and football -- into world-class athletes. There is only one problem: There are about as many Qataris as there are residents of a medium-sized German city. Only one in seven of the emirate's 1.5 million residents holds Qatari citizenship.

The Qataris have already tried many things. In football, for example, the country's best young talents were sent to clubs in Europe a few years ago, but the experiment failed. Then the Qataris imported stars like Mario Basler and Stefan Effenberg, hoping to raise the bar within their local league, but the expensive European pros lacked commitment. Qatar also offered to pay foreign pros, like the Brazilians Ailton and Dede, both playing for German clubs, €1.5 million ($1.8 million) to change their citizenship, which the World Football Federation (FIFA) eventually disallowed.

"Football Dreams" is a new beginning, an attempt to lure some of the world's best young talent to Qatar. It was former Spanish pro Josep Colomer's idea. He was the assistant coach for the Brazilian national team, which beat Germany in the World Cup final in 2002, and he worked at Clairefontaine, the French elite football school, and ran the recruitment department at FC Barcelona. Colomer is the man who discovered Lionel Messi when he was the same age as Ivan Sekazza is today.

Gargantuan Effort

Colomer says that European football is a bubble, made up of too much money and too much hysteria. Since 2006, he has spent 250 days a year traveling through developing countries to organize the talent search. Last year he held elimination matches in more than 800 places, a gargantuan effort made possible by 6,000 volunteers. The task of weeding out the top 25 of more than half a million footballers is believed to have cost about €10 million ($13 million).

In Africa, the children would travel to the match locations from their remote villages on the day before the match, spending the night on the edge of the pitch, anxious not to miss their opportunity. Residents on an island in the Niger delta in southern Nigeria even protected the scouts from kidnappers, a common threat in the region, so as not to jeopardize the elimination matches. In Ghana, armed men threatened to shoot Colomer. And in Cameroon an especially talented boy was suddenly missing on the second day of the trials. He had died overnight.

Scouting has become a mission for the Spaniard, who based his idea on the concept for the musical talent show "American Idol" and its German spin-off. The marketing department at Aspire wanted to give the finale a similar treatment when it was broadcast on a Saudi Arabian sports channel. But Colomer put a stop to the plan, because he had already grasped the existential dimension while preparing the first edition of "Football Dreams" in 2007. "In Europe children play football for fun. In Africa they play for their lives."

The Qataris are convinced that Colomer's concept will enable them to develop their national team into a dream team of world football. They took a similar approach when they granted citizenship to track and field athletes like Kenyan Stephen Cherono, who captured the world championship twice for Qatar in the 3,000 meter hurdles. But when it comes to football this is easier said than done today, because FIFA has changed its statutes. Ivan Sekazza will not be allowed to play for Qatar until he is 23 -- if at all. Until then, the children from the Third World will challenge and encourage Qatar's local talent. Sports officials hope that the children from Africa will show their own well-fed youngsters the importance of will and determination in sports.

Andreas Bleicher, a German, is the sporting director at Aspire. The former director of the Rhineland Olympic Base, Bleicher also sees the Football Dreams project as a humanitarian gesture that can be used to give scholarships to highly talented children from developing countries. He says that the organizers have no commercial interest in the children. Aspire is not a football club, which means that it does not own the transfer rights of players. For Bleicher, the goal is to shape Aspire into the world's best sports academy. "We want to be the ones to have discovered the next Messi or Ronaldinho."

Modern Toilets and Passports

The change of environment is challenging for the children. For last year's winners, it was difficult to adjust to life in a boarding school, and to such new experiences as being alone in their rooms. Some boys had never seen a modern toilet before. In their school lessons, they learned what a passport is, how a bank account works and how to read a plane ticket. Some of the boys decided not to take advantage of their free trip home during the school vacation, because they feared that they would constantly be expected to hand out gifts.

But they play football like young gods. Samuel, from Kumasi in Ghana, is faster than any of his fellow players. Innocent, from Gboko in Nigeria, could be the next Roberto Carlos. Solomon, another Nigerian boy, is nicknamed "Master" because he controls the game like a director. And Ivan? "Very fast, a good learner and left-footed. There aren't too many of those," says Football Dreams creator Colomer, "but he still needs some technical improvement."

The boys are playing the AC Milan youth squad for the second time today. Before the first match the young Italians, members of the same club as world football stars like Kaká and Ronaldinho, were self-confident, almost arrogant, only to lose 0:7 against the kids from the world's poorest countries. Stefano Eranio, the Milan coach, was as shocked as he was enthusiastic. "They are technically amazing and physically sensational. My boys would have had to shoot them to stop them."

But the Italians are determined not to lose the second match, the deciding match for the 25 finalists. The kids from Milan stonewall. The score is still 0:0 at half-time. Ivan is replaced, and in the end the Aspire team wins the match 2:0. Ivan does his best not to show his disappointment -- no tears, no rage, his words cool as a pro's.

His football dream in Qatar has come to an end, but this doesn't mean returning to Kampala. He and most of the others who did not make it into the top three will now live in Senegal, where Aspire has established a branch of the academy 30 kilometers (18 miles) outside the capital Dakar. There Ivan will be trained for his future as a professional player. He will go to school and improve his game, learn French and the basics of life. And he will read the bible as often as possible, especially psalm 119: "I have declared my ways, and thou heardest me."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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