It’s Wednesday night, and at the Aspire Academy, about 10 kilometres north of the city centre, Qatar’s national team are holding an open training session ahead of the start of their home World Cup campaign.
Inside the entrance to the team’s base is a wall plastered with quotes from football’s great and good, from Pele, Neymar and — obviously — David Beckham. Alongside, is the team’s mantra, “Honour. Loyalty. Respect. Victory.”
Outside, the facilities are exemplary, almost unreal. The green hues under floodlights, the pristine and hitherto untouched equipment, the Augusta-style banks sloping around the training pitch all coming together to create a picture more like a video game than reality. Australia and Ghana also have their training bases at the Academy, and it is not difficult to see why.
Notably, though, there is hardly anyone here. A couple of camera crews, a handful of international journalists keen to discover more about a team that is the biggest unknown quantity at the tournament, but, seemingly, no one from the local media. Four days out from the start of a home World Cup, it is a bizarrely calm, subdued scene.
A few hundred metres away, though, on the other side of the Academy’s fences, lies Aspire Park and what to this point has felt like a rare glimpse of genuine, authentic World Cup fever.
In the near pitch-black, several small-sided pitches are still populated with hoards of children, cries of excitement and the sounds of foot on unseeable ball. Further into the park itself, a line of hundreds, perhaps even a couple of thousand, snakes back and forth, local people queuing to have their photo taken with the World Cup itself.
As with most things here, in a country where the native population makes up little more than 10 per cent of the almost three-million whole, it seems the vast majority are foreigners: migrant workers, expats and the like.
It is difficult to escape the sense that there has never been a World Cup at which the success or failure of the host nation matters less. For the state and a country with little football tradition, the game has already been won by bringing the tournament here. For the majority of the people, it will be Brazil and Neymar, Argentina and Messi, France and Mbappe, that bring the thrills.
Humiliation, though, would not be a good look, which explains the planning, resource and ingenuity which has been pumped into building a competitive team, one that includes 10 naturalised players from countries such Portugal, Egypt, France, Ghana and Algeria.
The Aspire Academy, an athletic and academic breeding ground for sporting talent first launched in 2004, has been key and, in a purely sporting sense, a resounding success: a remarkable 18 of Qatar’s 26-man squad are graduates, as is the country’s most famous athlete, Olympic and world champion high-jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim, whose younger brother, Meshaal Barsham, is a national team goalkeeper.
Head coach Felix Sanchez is another to have come through at Aspire, the Spaniard having left a coaching role at Barcelona’s academy in 2006.
Since June, Sanchez has had his squad in training camps, mainly in Austria and Spain, where they have played 19 friendlies, operating almost as a club side in the tournament run-up. All 26 play their club football in the Qatar Stars League.
The same coach and core group won the Asia Cup in 2019, a considerable achievement for a country that had never gone beyond the quarter-finals before, beating Japan 3-1 in the final.
Centre-forward Almoez Ali scored with a memorable bicycle kick in that game and goes into the World Cup closing on becoming the country’s all-time leading scorer. Akram Afif, who spent time at Villarreal and Sevilla, and briefly played in La Liga for Sporting Gijon, is another of the local stars.
Qatar’s footballing standing is growing: the prestige of being hosts has prompted invites to the Copa America and CONCACAF Gold Cup in recent years and the last two Asian Footballer of the Year awards have gone to Qataris. Like the country, though, the national team is in uncharted territory now.