EUPEN, Belgium — In the southeast corner of Belgium, there is a town of about 20,000 that is known, to the extent it is known at all, as a key battleground during the Battle of the Bulge and, more recently, as the center of the tiny slice of this country that speaks German instead of French.
Time moves slowly here. There is a quaint stretch of shops and a small train station and a hotel, the Ambassador, which has 28 rooms. The biggest commotion on any given day is when the children at the school in town go outside for recess.
Except on soccer days. Then, much of the town treks up a steep hill to a modest soccer stadium, the Kehrweg-Stadion, home to K.A.S. Eupen, the local professional team that has spent most of its 69-year existence in the lower divisions of Belgium’s national league. The stadium is unremarkable, with its squat, steel stands and patchy grass, and yet it is the site, on a March morning two years ago, of one of the strangest couplings in professional sports.
On that day, a group of about 20 men toured the 8,000-seat stadium, examining its sparse amenities and looking out at the drab surrounding areas. They then moved on to K.A.S. Eupen’s small offices, where a candid acquisition meeting between club officials and executives from Qatar’s Aspire Academy, based in Doha some 3,000 miles away, began promptly at 10 a.m.
Even those in the room would later describe this meeting between the officials of a mostly anonymous Belgian soccer team and representatives of a Middle Eastern royal family as surreal. As they negotiated the details of the acquisition, four different languages were spoken — English, French, German and Arabic — and while the club had a multilingual staff member on hand to help translate, there were still moments of inevitable confusion.
One could see why. On the surface, the two groups had nothing in common, but each also possessed something the other needed. For the officials from Eupen (pronounced OY-pen), the lure was obvious: money. Like many small-time soccer clubs in Europe, Eupen was on the verge of financial ruin; the Qatari royal family represented a surprising and unusual jackpot.
For the Qataris, the attraction was more complex. They were searching for a way station of sorts, a side door into the elite European soccer system. Through a program called Aspire Football Dreams, begun in 2007, the Qataris had scouted hundreds of thousands of young African players and brought the best of them to their academies, in Doha and in Senegal, to develop. Now they wanted a place where the youths could play professionally.
The plan seemed straightforward enough: Take the best of the African prospects and bring them to a team in Europe to begin their professional careers. After the boys live in Europe, under Aspire’s supervision, for the required number of years, have them apply for European passports, allowing them freer movement in club-to-club transfers since there are often restrictions on the number of non-European players allowed at any one club.
Then, when the boys have developed to the point that they are coveted by more famous clubs like Bayern Munich or Barcelona, cash the checks on their transfer fees and, most important for the Qataris, hold them up as shining examples of a meteoric rise in Qatari soccer acumen. The world would know that these boys came from Aspire.
“We want our players to become the best in the world,” said Andreas Bleicher, the executive in charge of Aspire’s Football Dreams project and its international endeavors. “To do that, we needed a club of our own.”
The Qatari royal family is determined to morph its small nation of 1.8 million (1.5 million of whom are expatriates) into a modern-day player on all fronts: education, architecture, culture and sports. There is even a formal plan, Qatar National Vision 2030, which pledges that the country will become “an advanced society” within 16 years.
With soccer, however, there are severe limitations. Qatari leaders would ideally like their national team to become something more than a regional punching bag, but in a country with little ingrained sports culture, finding homegrown talent is challenging.
That forced officials at the Aspire Academy, which is just one piece of Qatar’s multibillion-dollar investment in sports, to get creative.
In 2007, the academy created Aspire Football Dreams, a self-described humanitarian effort to give struggling African countries more opportunities through soccer. The program brings African teenagers to Qatar to give them training while competing against young Qatari athletes.
If the program burnishes Qatar’s national brand, that is all to the good. Bleicher readily acknowledges that all Aspire players sign a contract that includes a strict image-rights provision so that “if a player gets really good, we can freely use his picture.”
But the ethics of this process, as well as the logistics involved, remain murkier. Elmar Keutgen, who was the mayor of Eupen in 2012, said he and other residents had significant concerns about the Qataris’ purchase of the club. Yes, K.A.S. Eupen was on the verge of insolvency, Keutgen said, but that did not mean he and others were comfortable becoming the Qataris’ washing machine in an operation intended to launder African players into Europe.
While many Africans do play in European leagues, the calculated nature of the Qataris’ plan — and the rigidness with which they controlled the young players’ futures — gave Keutgen and others some pause.
“I was very careful at the beginning because obviously the reaction from the locals was a concern,” said Keutgen, a practicing physician. “Are they treating these players like objects, or even animals? Are they trying to breed football players? People were worried.”
According to Bleicher, the idea of owning a club emerged in 2010, when he and Josep Colomer, the director of Aspire Football Dreams, realized that their first class of African players, whom they had been training since they were 13, would soon need to leave academy life and begin their professional careers. Instead of simply letting the players go, Bleicher and Colomer wanted a way to continue having a hand in — or control over — the players’ development.
Bleicher, who had previously worked on Germany’s Olympics program, and Colomer, a former youth scout for Barcelona, knew that Europe was full of struggling clubs looking for angel owners.
The executives quickly discarded England, Spain, France and Italy as options because each country had restrictive rules about how many non-European players could be on a team’s roster. In the end, Bleicher said, the choice was between Portugal and Belgium. Since many of the African players spoke French, Belgium seemed a better fit particularly when considering the country’s residency requirements: after three years of residency in Belgium, a person can apply for a Belgian passport and become a dual citizen. (Other countries, such as France, require five years of residency or more.)
From a business perspective, Eupen was ripe. It had been promoted to Belgium’s top division as recently as 2010, but was crippled by mismanagement. By the time the Qataris arrived, the club was back in the second division and bankruptcy was looming. “The situation seemed perfect,” Bleicher said.
Neither Eupen nor Aspire officials would comment publicly on the financial side of the transaction, but two officials involved in the deal said Aspire’s initial investment was roughly €4 million (about $5.5 million), which wiped out about €2 million in the club’s debts and came with the explicit understanding that Aspire would assume full control of the club’s professional operation but not any of its other facets.
Aspire agreed to bankroll the youth teams — for a sum believed to be upward of €200,000 per year, according to the officials — but would take no part in operating the program.
“They wanted to run a team, and just a team — we understood that,” said Ralph Lentz, a local lawyer and Eupen board member.
Once the purchase was complete, Aspire recast the entire organization. Before the Qataris arrived, Eupen’s roster was almost exclusively European, with about half the players having Belgian heritage. By the next season, about half the roster was African.
Christoph Henkel, an executive with F.C. Cologne, a professional team in Germany, was brought in to become the club’s chief executive and liaison to Bleicher. A Spanish coach, Tintín Márquez, was also hired.
Training schedules and playing philosophies were revamped. The stadium’s suite and lounge facilities were upgraded and overhauled. If players were injured and required significant treatment, they would be sent to the sports medicine center in Doha for evaluation. In the end, the Qataris kept the name and crest of the club — two things Keutgen and other longtime residents were worried about — but little else.
For Bleicher and Colomer, this remote town was perfect. They had rejected a proposal to purchase a team in a big city like Brussels because, as Bleicher put it, “If we take 15 18-year-olds to a big city like Brussels and let them loose, good luck to us.”
Bassey grew up in the city of Uyo in southeastern Nigeria, where he lived with his grandmother in a house that had no television and little furniture. “We could sleep there,” he said. “But it was not a rich man’s house.”
About seven years before he arrived in Belgium, Bassey attended a local tryout for Football Dreams with roughly 8,000 other Nigerian boys where he was one of four players selected to advance to the next screening in Lagos. He then survived one more showcase in Doha before spending most of the next three years at Aspire’s academy in Saly, Senegal.
“I’m grateful for this,” he said. “I don’t know where I would be right now if it wasn’t for Aspire.”
Yet of all the lessons he learned during his pre-Eupen Aspire experience, buying groceries or making breakfast were not among them. At the academies in Doha or Senegal, players lived in dormitories and had meals served to them; in Eupen, they lived in apartments spread out around town. “My first thought,” Bassey said, “was: How am I going to eat?”
Henkel, the new chief executive, tried to anticipate the players’ practical concerns. When the boys first arrived, the club organized a cooking class for them. “We brought in a chef,” Henkel said. “We showed them how to make fish, how to make salad. I am not sure how much they actually do.”
Asamoah, a midfielder, laughed when he recalled the lesson. “It was good,” he said. “But, you know, we make a lot of pasta. Pasta and rice. That’s pretty much it.”
There were other problems, too. One player could not figure out how to use his washing machine; flummoxed that it stopped every time he opened the lid, he tried to bail the water out with a long stick and promptly broke the appliance.
When the weather turned colder, Michael Graeven, the club’s longtime caretaker, said he had to tell some of the African players to replace their sandals with socks and shoes.
As the days passed, the players explored the town and did their best to interact with its residents, many of whom speak French or English in addition to German. Frank Neumann, who owns a clothing store in the center of town, said many local residents were initially leery of the Qataris’ intentions (as well as the motivations of the African boys) but were pleasantly surprised to see how fairly the Qataris treated local businesses.
“They offered to let residents use their buildings or the stadium for events,” Neumann said. “That went a long way.”
He added: “The boys don’t seem arrogant at all. They come in here and shop the way everyone else does. They come from a different culture and are a different color, but it doesn’t have to be a big deal.”
Jonas Deumeland, a veteran goalkeeper, was kept on the team to help mentor some of his younger teammates. He said most Aspire players stayed away from bars or nightclubs. “Many are very religious, very committed to being Muslim,” Deumeland said. “I’m not sure I’ve seen one drink.”
Deumeland also remarked on how much pressure he sensed that the Aspire players felt, an awareness that this was the opportunity of their lives.
Each African player earned at least the Belgian-mandated minimum salary for non-Europeans — about €77,000 euros, or $104,000, this past season — and a portion of their paycheck was deducted by the club for rent on their apartments.
During the first few months in Eupen, several players came to team officials to quietly ask if they could receive more spending money. The players sheepishly revealed that they had not spent their money on one big purchase; rather, they had simply sent all of their salary back to struggling relatives in Africa.
“We feel pressure to perform here, but it is a good pressure, because we are trying to change the paths of our families,” Asamoah said. “We have a chance to make a big difference.”
Kevin Kis, a Belgian defender who initially stayed with the team, recalled that every player was summoned for individual meetings with Colomer in June 2012.
“He said there were 15 new players coming, and he explained that they’d been training them since they were 12,” Kis said. “He started to say more, but it mostly just seemed like we didn’t have any choice about any of it.”
A starter for much of the first three months of the season, Kis was a bench player by early 2013, as the African players became more comfortable. When his contract expired at the end of the season, he was let go.
“The year before, it was different, it was the best players who actually played,” Kis said. “Last season, it was not like that anymore. The new guys got credit, and were being trained. The rest of us were left out.”
The new coach, Márquez, who played professionally in Spain, would not comment on his personnel choices. He did point out, however, that the Aspire players were not immune from criticism; in fact, a handful of Aspire players who spent years training in Senegal or Doha found themselves on flights back to Africa after that first season because they did not perform well enough.
Hamza Zakari, a midfielder from Ghana, was one of the players shipped out, though he remained in Europe. He played a total of two minutes during that first season in Eupen, then was sent on loan to Tromso in the Norwegian league and is currently playing for a team in Iceland.
When he described his experience in Eupen, Zakari also questioned an unusual part of Aspire’s setup: Instead of allowing each player to sign with his own agent, Aspire pays one agent, Lamine Savane, to represent all its players. This raises an apparent conflict of interest because the agent is being paid by the team’s owners to represent its players.
Zakari said he also believed it was difficult for one agent to represent an entire roster of players who were all competing for playing time.
“I think maybe we all cannot stay in one place and play for one team,” Zakari said. He added, “For me, it was very strange.”
Bleicher said this arrangement was preferable, since the players do not have to pay any commissions to Savane, who travels often to Eupen to check on them. Savane did not respond to requests for an interview.
The stakes were considerable: Eupen was second in the league, just one point behind its opponent, K.V.C. Westerlo. If Eupen won, it would win the league and be automatically promoted to the first division; if it tied or lost, it would have to go through a four-team playoff to have a chance at promotion.
Sitting among the fans at Westerlo’s quaint stadium were four Qatari players from Aspire’s academy in Doha. They had arrived in Eupen in January and played with the club’s reserve team during the second half of the season. If things went well, one or two might have a chance to play for Eupen’s first team next year.
According to Bleicher, the progression of those players (and other young Qataris), as well as the development of the Football Dreams players, is what will ultimately determine the answer to the most intriguing question surrounding this entire arrangement: Will it work?
With just one full season completed, it is impossible to say. Scouts from bigger clubs, such as England’s Tottenham Hotspur, have come to see the Eupen players, but executives around Europe generally view Aspire’s plan with curiosity more than intrigue.
One personnel executive at a top-division club said he was monitoring the situation in Eupen but “was not particularly impressed with the talent,” though he acknowledged they were still quite young. “Having teenagers, essentially, playing first-team football is unusual,” the executive said, “and that’s often for a reason.”
But wins for Eupen are not necessarily the overriding goal. Márquez said he was more focused on the technical improvement of his players, so that they can grow into more viable professionals. “Playing a professional season is a new experience,” Márquez said. “It is nothing like what any of them has done before. So we need to prepare them.”
That is why the Qataris are being integrated, too, Bleicher said. Even if they do not become stars — or even starters — at Eupen, having the opportunity to play in a European league will only raise their level when they are playing with Qatar’s national team.
“Next year we would love to have 10 Qatari players involved in Eupen, either with the reserves or the first team,” Bleicher said.
Within a few years, he envisioned a first-team roster with a mix of five to seven Qatari players, five to seven African players, and European players filling out the rest of the spots.
Realistically, Eupen will always be just a starting point. While the Qataris have a strong business relationship with huge clubs like Barcelona (and have owned the Paris St.-Germain team for three years), Bleicher is adamant there is no formal pipeline in place.
That was why the players felt so much pressure on the day of that final game. The Belgian first division, while hardly akin to the English or Spanish top leagues, was a significant step up from the second tier where Eupen currently played. Sitting in the stands not far from the Qataris, Bassey, the speedy Nigerian midfielder who had injured his knee earlier in the winter, rooted as hard as anyone.
“Playing first division next year would be amazing,” he said.
But it was not to be. Westerlo won, 1-0, and the Eupen players and fans trudged slowly back to their buses.
Bleicher, though, was not unhappy with the result, nor was he particularly distressed when the team failed to win promotion through the playoffs.
“Our strategy, honestly, does not depend on the result of one game or on the result of one season,” he said. “Our aim is not to win the Champions League.”
Bleicher already had his eye on the summer off-season. At the moment, there was no interest in the Aspire players from any major clubs, but Bleicher sounded proud as he hinted that one of the Eupen players might soon make the jump to a bigger team. A few months later, it happened. Diawandou Diagne, who played two seasons with Eupen, signed a contract to play with Barcelona’s “B” team. “Hopefully, he can make it into the first-team squad in a year or two,” Bleicher said.
To the Aspire officials, Diagne’s move is proof that in some small way, the plan is working. Yes, the Qataris want the African players to thrive in Eupen, but they also, ultimately, want them to leave. That, more than any win or loss, is what will define this bizarre partnership between a royal family and a rural town.
Asamoah, the Aspire player who made the most appearances for Eupen this past season, knows the stakes. He has seen other African players find success on the continent and, despite the unusual path from Ghana to Doha to Senegal to Belgium, hopes that he will do the same.
Every day, Asamoah said, he watches videos of players like Samuel Eto’o, a Cameroonian forward who left Africa in the early 1990s, found his way to Real Madrid’s youth academy in Spain and went on to become a dominant scorer. “He did it one way,” Asamoah said one afternoon after practice as he stretched out his legs and looked out at the stadium field in front of him. “Why can’t I do it this way?”
Sam Borden reported from Eupen, Belgium; Steve Eder from Doha, Qatar; and Christopher Harress and Jack Williams from New York.