DOHA, Qatar -- Tucked behind a glitzy shopping mall and a 40,000-seat stadium, a sports academy built by the tiny desert nation of Qatar is charged with an ambitious -- some might say impossible -- mission: Turn the nation's 105th-ranked soccer team into a contender by the time it hosts the 2022 World Cup.
Dozens of boys play on the eight indoor and outdoor soccer fields at the government's Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence, learning the basics of shooting and passing. The soccer school is the heart and soul of a master plan targeted at finding the best players in Qatar -- and elsewhere. Money, it seems, is no object in the oil- and gas-rich country of 1.6 million people.
Thousands of Qatari boys as young as 6 are scouted from the country's 10 talent centers each year and several dozen are admitted into the academy for 12 years of intense training. They have access to the best coaches from more than a dozen countries and compete alongside African, Asian and Latin American youths who are plucked from developing countries to boost the talent pool and possibly contribute to the national team.
They play each year against 30 or more of the world's elite youth clubs, including Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United, who are flown into Doha. The program has gained both inspiration and urgency since Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, beating out Japan, South Korea and the United States in December's vote.
"It's a great motivation," said Wayde Clews, the academy's Australian director of sport. "There are now little boys waking up every morning and that is all they are thinking about. They can see a pathway.
"They know that Aspire is here. ... It's become real. It's become tangible. That is just great to galvanize the community and efforts to fielding this team that without question will ultimately perform very well in 2022."
But will Qatar, which as of now would be the lowest-ranked team to host a World Cup, put in a good showing?
It has the money -- with the world's second highest per capita income -- to hire a big-name coach and already has some of the best fields and training facilities. It also has much more time than past fledging World Cup hosts, such as South Africa, to develop a talented team.
Yet it also has the smallest population of any World Cup host, a disadvantage made more extreme because 80 percent of its residents are foreigners, who usually stay only for a few years. These factors limit the talent pool as well as the quality of competition, since all the best Qatari players can be found at the academy.
"What can you expect from a country with 320,000 people in football?" said Alfred Riedl, the Indonesian coach who also has coached Vietnam and Austria. "In 2022, there will be maybe 700,000 Qataris living there. This might be not enough to field a strong soccer team. But they have 11 years and that's a lot. Bring in the best coaches and bring out the best youth players."
Danny Jordaan, chief of the local organizing committee for the World Cup in South Africa last summer, said size alone will not determine whether Qatar succeeds.
"If population size was the determining factor, then China and India should qualify for every World Cup. But that is not the case," Jordaan said. "You find countries like Trinidad and Tobago, which qualified for the 2006 World Cup and we saw Slovenia in 2010. It is not the size of population, but what plans you have in place to achieve success."
Asian Football Confederation President Mohamed bin Hammam, a Qatari and supporter of the bid, allows that his nation probably won't beat the Brazils of the world. But buoyed by Qatar's quarterfinal appearance at the Asian Cup last month, when it lost 3-2 to eventual champion Japan, Bin Hammam said he expects the team will make the nation proud.
"Of course, we need to improve to be a world-class team. But you see our team against Japan which made the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup. Qatar was still very much equivalent to Japan," he said. "It doesn't mean Qatar is at the zero level. They are at a very good level in terms of players. When we classify ourselves as a football nation, you can see what kind of football infrastructure we have. In Qatar, we are proud of this."
Bin Hammam also said Qatar wouldn't rule out using naturalized players from other countries -- as it did at the Asian Cup with some of its top players coming from South America and Africa.
"To field a squad with people not originally from Qatar but over years became naturalized, it is not a wrong thing and would not be the first (time)," he said.
Qatar can take inspiration from the likes of 1962 host Chile. Still recovering from a devastating earthquake two years earlier, the team finished third in the tournament.
Sergio Navarro, the captain of the 1962 Chilean team, said the keys were bringing together an organizing committee made up of "serious, responsible and realistic people," the coaching of Fernando Riera and the fans who rallied around the team after it started winning.
"Now, Qatar is a totally different situation, and these are different times," Navarro said. "I'm sure they have no money problems for stadiums and other facilities, but there are other aspects in the organization. ... Time runs fast, and although their World Cup is years away, they should be working already. And fulfill the promises they make."
South Africa, the first host nation not to reach the knockout stage, failed to capitalize on its winning bid. It was a top-50 team when it won the bid in 2004. But it slipped to as low as 90th, mostly due to its failure to hire a top coach -- in the end, it was Carlos Alberto Parreira of Brazil -- until months before the tournament and its dependence on older players at the expense of younger talent.
"I think we should have taken a decision earlier to rebuild a new team," Jordaan said.
Jordaan said Qatar can avoid South Africa's mistakes by putting its resources into player development -- improving its under-17, under-20 and Olympic teams, along with boosting the quality of its professional league, which lags behind Europe and other parts of Asia in attracting top talent and fans.
Aspire, which was formed six years ago, already has produced several players for the country's Olympic and national teams. Looking out on the 8- and 9-year-olds he coaches, Ricardo Borba said he has no doubt some will be stars for Qatar by 2022.
"You have to dream a little bit," Borba said. "Without a dream, you're life doesn't make sense."