By Brent Latham
GUATEMALA CITY -- A mild breeze ruffles the trees surrounding the field at Cementos Progreso Stadium, as some of the country's brightest young soccer stars run through drills under a deep blue sky. It's a perfect day for soccer, the kind that would make anyone want to linger in Central America. But on this afternoon, each of these 50 young men would like nothing better than to earn a one-way ticket to a country halfway around the world.
After a nationwide search, this select group of teenagers has been brought here to try to impress an international team of talent seekers from countries including Spain, Germany and Brazil. Old hands at appraising soccer talent, this football cognoscenti will choose a few Guatemalans to travel to what is rapidly becoming one of the best youth soccer academies in the world.
But the head scout, Josep Colomer, who made his name by bringing Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi to Barcelona, is not headed back to Europe. The man considered possibly the world's best judge of youth soccer talent doesn't work for the Blaugrana anymore. He'll be sending the gems he plucks from obscurity to meet up with others from around the world at Aspire Academy in Qatar.
The announcement that the small Middle Eastern nation of Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup stunned more than a few football fans. The Arab country about the size of Connecticut will become by far the smallest ever to host the tournament. Critics have asked loudly how a relatively unknown nation could pull off such a coup. But look closer and you'll realize that it might not be such a shock. You'll see that Qatar, through a program called Football Dreams, has built a strong presence in many developing nations, some of which also have representation on FIFA's executive committee that voted on the hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments.
Indeed, despite relative obscurity in the popular consciousness of the Western world, Qatar has quietly been making a name for itself in international soccer circles. The country's al-Thani ruling family has long showed an interest in international athletics, and in the past few years has invested a portion of its immense wealth in a quest to make Qatar competitive in a range of Olympic sports, including soccer.
As part of that vision, in 2004 the royal family funded the Aspire Academy project to train Qatari athletes with the best technology and resources that money could buy. Shortly after, as an offshoot of the academy's soccer program, the Aspire Football Dreams program was launched to uncover youth soccer talent hidden in the farthest-flung villages and outposts in the world.
"I take more than 160 flights each year," Colomer told local press while in Guatemala, as he assessed the annual fruits of one of 15 Football Dreams programs scattered across Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. "I sleep in a different village of the world every night. I leave my house in May and return in December."
The program began in 2005 with a handful of camps in sub-Saharan Africa. Since then, it has expanded to Latin America and Southeast Asia. Each year, Aspire's scouts run the rule over hundreds of thousands of young players, and through a series of increasingly exclusive trials, end up with a scholarship class of international students invited to live, study and play alongside the Qatari students at Aspire in Doha.
At inception, Football Dreams was billed as an innovative way to find undiscovered talent and prepare those prodigies for top-level football, while keeping them out of the hands of unscrupulous agents and human traffickers. Colomer goes one better and describes the project primarily as a humanitarian effort.
"Thanks to the Qatari royal family, we've been able to take on this humanitarian project," he said. "This project is one that I've had inside me since I was at Barcelona. It's an honor to represent [the royal family], but the people won't really take notice until one of the kids who comes through this program joins Barcelona or Manchester United or Real Madrid, because the day will come when one of these kids comes out of nowhere and goes to Aspire to become the next Messi. And all of this is just to give kids an opportunity, regardless of their class or socioeconomic status."
Since its founding, backed by the royal family's bottomless bank accounts and the contacts and clout of more recently added sponsors UNICEF and Nike, Aspire Football Dreams has expanded rapidly if quietly, having now put more than 2 million teenagers through trials in developing countries around the world.