Photo: Clive Rose/Getty

The Aspire Academy’s listed mission statement is to “develop well educated sports champions” and “foster Qatar society realizing a healthy, active lifestyle.” The Qatari government founded Aspire in 2003, building a state-of-the-art sports complex in Doha with the aim of identifying and training athletes from the tiny Gulf nation so that they could compete on the global stage. The organization was not initially a part of the Qatar 2022 World Cup bidding process, as it was established much earlier, but according to the newly released FIFA corruption investigation report, bid officials “pulled Aspire into the orbit of the bid in significant ways.” Former FIFA investigator Michael Garcia ultimately ruled that Aspire helped “undermine the integrity of the bidding process.”

While Aspire is an explicitly Qatari-centric project, it has always operated on an international scale. In 2007, Aspire started screening children from outside of Qatar (mainly Africa) and training them at Aspire facilities. As a 2014 report from the New York Times noted, Aspire has screened millions of kids in a stated effort to help develop soccer in Africa, while also probably plucking the most promising children, bringing them back to Qatar, and potentially naturalizing them in an effort to help their national team (which sucks).

In the first year alone, Qatar screened nearly 430,000 boys in 595 locations across seven African countries. More than seven years later, Aspire has screened 3.5 million young athletes across three continents and cherry-picked the most promising boys for odysseys that have spanned the globe.

While the mission of providing training and infrastructural support to fledgling soccer nations and countries lacking solid funding seems like an altruistic cause, the FIFA report shows that the bid committee got control of Aspire and attempted to use it strategically to curry favor with FIFA Executive Committee officials. Qatar’s bid book announced Aspire partnerships with two countries: Thailand and Nigeria. Neither country had lodged a bid to host the World Cup, and both were the home nations of FIFA Executive Committee members. Aspire promised to build a “sustainable Football Dreams Academy” in Thailand and support grassroots soccer efforts in Nigeria. However, minutes from an Aspire meeting hinted at indecision over the Nigeria project because it was unclear how it would be politically useful for FIFA Executive Committee member Amos Adamu:

Decision of countries in Africa goes back to it being politically useful for that particular FIFA Exco member, which in the case of Nigeria is not clear.

Officials from Aspire and Qatar’s bid committee deny that they considered such an arrangement. An email from Aspire director Andrea Bleicher to bid committee officials revealed that Aspire wanted to use its clout to organize friendlies and training camps in an attempt to “help” various “target countries.” He also floated the possibility of a tournament, hosting countries with FIFA ExCo members and held at Aspire facilities, to deepen friendships with useful nations.

Aspire denied making any payments to clubs or national football associations when making training arrangements. While much of the FIFA report hedges its bets and comes up uncertain about very serious allegations and specific examples of wrongdoing, Garcia is very direct about Aspire’s role in Qatar 2022:

At a minimum, the targeting of Aspire-related resources to curry favor with Executive Committee members created the appearance of impropriety. Those actions served to undermine the integrity of the bidding process.