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Four Years From Its Big Party, Qatar Remains a Soccer Work in Progress

EUPEN, Belgium — The chant started midway through the first half, emanating from a corner of the Kehrweg Stadium where a few dozen preteens, each of them wearing a thick down jacket amid the falling snow, were gathered.

Their coats identified the children as members of the youth system of the local club, K.A.S. Eupen. The team’s crest was emblazoned on the chest of each coat. On the back was another badge, another name: Aspire, the organization that owns and runs Eupen. For five years, Eupen has been the finishing school for graduates of the Aspire Academy, the lavish Qatari-financed project designed to turn the tiny Gulf state into an elite force in global sports.

The children were clearly eager to show their gratitude on Monday when Qatar’s national team paid a rare visit to Eupen to face Iceland in an exhibition match. As Ari Skulason, the Icelandic captain, lined up a free kick, that small corner of the stadium came out in support of his opponent. In shrill, excited voices, carrying across the bitterly cold night, the Belgian children chanted, “Qatar, Qatar.”

In the last decade, Qatar has spent an almost unfathomable amount of money to try to turn itself into a major player in soccer and, by extension, to win hearts and minds, to accrue coveted soft power around the globe. Here, at least, in this neat, compact stadium in this neat, compact town a few miles from the Belgium-Germany border, it seems to be working.

Eupen itself accounts for only the tiniest sliver of Qatar’s multibillion-dollar investment. Far more has gone into Aspire, with its expert, imported staff and its state-of-the-art facilities in Doha and Senegal.

Even that, though, pales into insignificance when compared with Qatar’s sponsorship deals with Barcelona, the establishment and expansion of the broadcaster beIN Sports, or the billion or so dollars spent on the purchase and subsequent transformation of Paris St.-Germain into one of Europe’s most powerful and most glamorous clubs.

And then, of course, there is the 2022 World Cup. Wednesday is four years to the day until the greatest show on Earth descends on Qatar, a nation of just 2.6 million people, a country that has never qualified for the tournament on merit, a place that has had to build a soccer infrastructure, essentially, from scratch. It is thought the eventual bill for the stadiums, the transportation systems, the hotels and at least one whole city will reach $200 billion.

That is the price; it is not the whole cost. It has been eight years since the former FIFA president Sepp Blatter confirmed, in front of a stunned conference hall in Zurich, that Qatar had beaten the United States, South Korea, Japan and Australia to win the rights to the 2022 tournament. What has happened since must surely cause both FIFA and Qatar itself the occasional quiver of doubt as to whether it was worth it.

For years, allegations of corruption, bribery and fraud in the bidding process swirled. Few of the members of the FIFA Executive Committee who were party to the vote remain; many have been indicted or arrested. The scandal eventually brought down Blatter and his entire regime. FIFA does what it can to claim that it has changed, but its case is unconvincing. The stain remains. In truth, it may never wash out.

Nor has the spotlight on Qatar been kind. If hosting the World Cup was imagined as a way to convey the country’s strength to the world, it has done little to that end. Human rights groups continue to report grave abuses of migrant workers in Qatar, frequently on projects related to the World Cup.

That is not to cast FIFA, or Qatar, as victims. The victims are the workers themselves, the ones who are living in appalling conditions, who are paid barely enough to survive, and who continue to die in the searing desert heat — written off as collateral damage in a power game, the cost of Qatar’s obsession with soccer.

Or, rather, its obsession with the tool that it hopes soccer can be. It has long seemed as if it is the theater of the World Cup — the display of wealth, the conspicuous consumption — that appeals to Qatar. The sport itself has always seemed something of an afterthought, what happened on the field somehow less important than the beauty of the stadiums.

That is not to say there is no thought that has gone into the team — Aspire works hand-in-glove with Qatar’s soccer federation — or that there is no plan to ensure that Qatar is, at the very least, competitive. It is simply that the incremental, low-key buildup is at odds with the glitz and showmanship Qatar has tried to project elsewhere, on the building sites in Doha or in Paris.

Monday’s game against Iceland, in front of only 2,830 fans here in Eupen — quite a few of them wearing Aspire jackets — is a case in point. Qatar is choosing its opponents carefully, avoiding the temptation to play the game’s giants. There would be little educational benefit for its players, entirely based in the Qatari Stars League, from being picked apart by France or Brazil.

Instead, Qatar’s Spanish coach, Félix Sánchez Bas, and his players take on the likes of Iceland and Switzerland. These are teams that can teach the squad “what it is to play at a high level, how quickly mistakes are punished,” as Sánchez Bas said; teams that “were at the World Cup, that are some of the best in the world or the best in Europe,” according to winger Akram Afif, one of Qatar’s brightest talents.

The idea is that the Qataris can learn gradually, carefully and without intense pressure what they will need to do if they are to exceed the world’s (admittedly low) expectations in 2022. “The World Cup is the long-term objective,” Sánchez Bas said. “We know it is there.”

He prefers to focus on the short term: the Asian Cup this winter, followed by a guest spot at the Copa América next summer in Brazil. “It is all experience for 2022,” he said.

The results, over the last few days, have been encouraging: a win against Switzerland followed by a commendable draw with a slightly weakened Iceland. “They have improved a lot,” said Erik Hamren, Iceland’s Swedish coach. “And they still have four years, and a lot of resources, to take more steps.”

Four years is a long time, of course: It is dozens more friendlies, each one a little more exacting than the last. It is countless training sessions. “We have every day to work, 24 hours every day,” Afif said.

But it is also not that long. Qatar is two-thirds of the way through its World Cup project. It is tempting to wonder if that is why so much effort has gone into the stadiums, because that is the part Qatar could indisputably control. Building a team is not something that can be done to deadline, no matter how much money is available.

In a country with such a small pool of players, as Afif said, it is likely that the team that took the field against Iceland will remain at least partly in place for the tournament. “It is hard to find players of a high level,” he said. “That is the difference between Qatar and places like Spain.”

Like his coach, Afif does not see the World Cup as an immediate worry. There is no pressure on the players because of 2022, he said, no sense of urgency or panic. The clock, though, is ticking. Four years from now, all of the money Qatar has spent, all of the players it has bought for P.S.G. and all the stadiums it has built, all of the hearts and minds it has tried to win, will be forgotten. In the eyes of the world, the success or failure of its grand ambition will rest on 23 players and a coach. Four years from now, the game will start.

Follow Rory Smith on Twitter: @RorySmith.

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