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Meet the tiny Belgian side that has helped Qatar develop players for the World Cup
Meet the tiny Belgian side that has helped Qatar develop players for the World Cup,When Qatar were controversially awarded the 2022 World Cup - residents of the small Belgian city of Eupen would not have thought their football team would play a crucial role

Meet the tiny Belgian side that has helped Qatar develop players for the World Cup

Just a short drive from the Belgian-German border sits the sleepy city of Eupen, home to just over 19,000 residents.

Eupen is something of a curiosity; despite being located in Belgium – not too far from Liege, one of Belgium's biggest cities – it is German-speaking. It has one football club, K.A.S Eupen, and they only graced the top tier of Belgian football for the first time in 2010.

However, it's quintessentially Belgian in look and feel, with street corners donning chocolate shops – and the city still holds scars from the two World Wars. It's the furthest place on earth you'd expect to have played a key role in the Qatar World Cup.

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With just over a month until the World Cup sparked to life, with Qatar's clash against Ecuador, the Maroons travelled to Marbella for a pre-tournament friendly.

Qatar had jetted to Spain to face K.A.S Eupen's B team – their main side still had commitments in the Belgian First Division A with a relegation battle on the cards. As a result, a small contingent from Belgium played Qatar behind closed doors.

The friendly raised eyebrows: why were Qatar playing a small side from Belgium? And the answer is even more curious.

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Eupen's players celebrate during a soccer match between KAS Eupen and Standard de Liege, Saturday 05 November 2022 in Eupen, on day 16 of the 2022-2023 'Jupiler Pro League' first division of the Belgian championship.
KAS Eupen have opened their doors to a flood of Qatari talent over the past decade (Image: BRUNO FAHY/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

In the summer of 2012, a group of Qatari diplomats touched down in Eupen; they were representing the Aspire Zone Foundation, and they had one goal: purchase a football club.

Aspire scouted more than 3.5 million young players in 17 developing countries, with 18-20 football scholarships awarded each year. Those lucky few travelled to Doha, Qatar, where they received a private education, coaching and medical support while playing football.

The foundation was missing one link, a location to play professional football – and K.A.S Eupen was deemed the perfect home for these young starlets.

Akram Afif of Qatar celebrates after scoring a goal to make it 1-1 during the International Friendly match between Qatar and Chile at Generali Arena on September 27, 2022 in Vienna, Austria
Six of Qatar's World Cup side have had a spell at the small Belgian side (Image: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

The reasoning was easy to see, unlike in Germany, Belgium doesn't have rules surrounding investors. And Pro League rules state only six players have to be from Belgium in the sides squad list.

There were rumours that Qatar's motives with the project had been to naturalise players ahead of the 2022 World Cup, giving them 10 years to bring players to the Middle East from the Belgian side. However, Christoph Henkel, the club's general security, shot that rumour down.

He said: "Almost every national team features players from different countries. The German team advertise the fact that they are one big family for players of different backgrounds… It's seen as positive. But if we were to do it – which we are not – it's seen as an absurdity, a crime."

Gent , Belgium / Kaa Gent v As Eupen / "nMbaye LEYE - Akram AFIF - Samuel GIGOT"nFootball Jupiler Pro League 2017 - 2018 Matchday 12
Akram Afif is one of the six players to turn out for KAS Eupen (Image: Vincent Van Doornick / Isosport)

Either way, 15 Qatari players have made the trip to Belgium in the years since the takeover. And six of those players have been named in Qatar's World Cup squad.

Assim Madibo, Abdelkarim Hassan, Yousef Hassan, Salem Al-Hajri, Akram Afif, and Homan Ahmed have all spent time in the border city.

Interestingly, left-back Fahad Al-Abdulrahman, who has made more appearances for Eupen than any other Qatari, was not selected in the squad. Al-Abdulrahman, who is back in Qatar, has three international caps to his name.

Akram Afif of Qatar poses during the official FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 portrait session on November 16, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
Akram Afif is Qatar's star player heading into the World Cup (Image: Catherine Ivill – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Akram Afif, who has two separate spells at Eupen is Qatar's proverbial jewel in the crown heading into the World Cup.

The winger was named Asia's footballer of the year in 2019, and he was at the heart of the Qatari side that won the Asian Cup the same year. Former Everton star, Tim Cahill, who is now chief sport officer at Aspire gushed about the star.

He said: "[Afif] can make something happen in a second. He's exciting. He plays off the left, likes to cut inside and he can score goals."


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