I just wanted to start of by giving a brief overview and a bit of context on the Aspire academy itself before going into the potential benefits and downsides to the new footballing partnership between Leeds United and the well-known Aspire Academy.
About the Aspire Academy:
One of Aspire’s main aims is to develop Qatar nationals and get them playing in professional football worldwide to improve their national teams. As stated on the official Aspire Academy website, “It is, of course, one of the longer-term goals of the Academy that some of our graduates will represent Qatar at the FIFA World Cup”. The Aspire academy was founded in 2004 with the aim of identifying and developing Qatari athletes for future success in football and other sports. Money is no object for the Aspire Academy as it is funded by the Qatar Royal Family and this has allowed them to build world class facilities and employ the very best of staff. For a real overview of the level of facilities that the institute offers and more information about their staff members, see this link: http://www.aspire.qa/. Such facilities could help Leeds United in the future, but I’ll touch more on that later in the blog. A lot of big names have got on board with the Aspire project including Xavi Hernandez and Raul Gonzalez Blanco both of whom are advisors of Aspire Academy. Along with these two, currently the world’s best player in the eyes of many, Lionel Messi, had the following to say:
“I have visited many countries as a player and have seen many developmental facilities – nothing compares with what they have at the Aspire Academy. The Qatari boys are very fortunate. With these amenities at their disposal, there are good chances of them making it big in the future.”
The partnership came about through Ivan Bravo, the ex-Real Madrid director of strategy who is a long-time associate of Leeds United’s chairman Andrea Radrizzani. Ivan joined the Leeds United board as a director in the summer of 2017, however, he would also stay in his main role as the director general of the Aspire Academy. This shows that right from the beginning it was only a matter of time before Leeds United and the Aspire Academy would form a partnership.
Current partnerships with professional football clubs:
Aspire Academy’s first step into professional football was to buy KAS Eupen who were, at the time, a second division side in Belgium. They served their purpose well, and still do, by providing a smooth transition into professional football for the Aspire graduates. This was to be the start of a group of football clubs that Aspire would either own or forge partnerships with in order to benefit both themselves and the clubs. They later bought Spanish second division side Cultural Leonesa and currently have links to India’s Delhi Dynamos and Ecuadorian outfit Independiente del Valle. All of these clubs, with no disrespect intended, are much smaller in size than their latest partners, Leeds United. For Aspire, this is a massive step forward to have a club the size of Leeds United in partnership with them. This could mean that in the future, Aspire’s graduates may be playing in England or hopefully, one of the best leagues in the world, The Premier League.
Criticism of the Aspire Academy:
The aspire academy claimed in an article by the New York times that they offer scholarships to young talented players around the world in order to help improve the level of quality that their current nationals play with. The whole idea is that the better the players the Qatar nationals are playing alongside on a regular basis, the better they will become. However, the Observer claimed in 2007 that they are head hunting players hoping that they declare themselves as Qatar citizens because of the opportunity Qatar has given them that their countries back in Africa could not. A spokesman of the Aspire Academy told New York times that this isn’t the case and stated that’s it is the players choice. They also denied any link to the successful Qatar world cup bid, which brings me onto my next point.
On the eve of The World Cup 2022 voting, Aspire set up training camps named “football dreams” in the countries whose votes would make a massive difference, including places like Thailand and Nigeria who had votes on the executive committee. Countries like Thailand, have failed to produce a player of note unlike a lot of countries where they could have looked for talent. Aspire claimed that such programmes were set up to help support nations that needed help and that it would barely benefit Qatar. It seems like a nice gesture, but why choose only the countries who could, and did vote in favour of Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup? It is well known that the Qatar Royal Family runs the Aspire Academy and Aspire’s main aim is to make a team that is competitive ready for when they host The World Cup. Despite these strange goings on, Aspire deny any link to The World Cup and simply state that they set the camps up to discover players and to help those countries in need.
Potential benefits for Leeds United:
There could potentially be many benefits to the partnership for both the Aspire academy and of course for Leeds United. The current Head Scout of the Aspire Academy is Josep Colomer, the man responsible for bringing Lionel Messi to Barcelona. He travels all over the world to try and find the best talent for Aspire. With Leeds United being by far the biggest club to be partnered with them, surely, we will get first say on any talent found by Aspire? Since the start of their programmes in 2007 more than 3.5 million children have been screened in 17 countries with 18–20 scholarships awarded each year. Leeds United already have a large scouting network set up by Victor Orta, but do they achieve these types of numbers when scouting? More than likely not. This partnership gives Leeds United access to this level of scouting without having to employ thousands of new scouts.
Aspire offer scholarships to talented players and improve their personal and professional development ready for the step into professional football. Some of the players that have graduated from the Aspire academy include Everton’s Henry Onyekuru and Diawandou Diagne who joined Barcelona B from Eupen in 2014. Both players have gone on to become full internationals for their countries. In a footballing world where each year’s clubs are recording losses financially, Leeds United could acquire quality players for a fraction of the price that they would cost if the club had no ties to Leeds United. After all, Aspire have plenty of money and claim that they are only after developing players to later go on and improve their national teams. Although the list of good players developed by Aspire isn’t that long, they’ve only been open since 2004 and do not buy young players for big fees like some football clubs around the world do and so, it takes time to develop world class players. Along with the world class facilities and highly qualified staff, including sports science, they hold regular tri-series involving u16’s, u17’s, and u18’s teams from all around the world. This once again provides Leeds United with several benefits. Not only do our current academy players get to play against different types of footballing styles that they wouldn’t play against in England. They also get to go away and spend time learning about different cultures. Whilst the academy coaches and staff are out with their teams in the tri-series, they also get the chance to scout potential players from the opponents. Some of the past opponents to take part in the tri-series include Liverpool FC, Paris St-Germain and Ajax, two of whom are very well-known for producing world class players. Leeds United’s under 18’s and under 16s recently travelled to Qatar to compete and although the opponents didn’t include the clubs mentioned, in the future they very well could. This allows the players to compete against the very best as well as the scouts and coaches being able to see young players first hand against the current Leeds United players. However, despite the many benefits that the partnership could offer, there are potential downsides.
Potential downsides to the partnership:
One of the main concerns I have as a fan is the amount of attention the official Leeds United social media accounts are giving to Aspire and to the Qatar World Cup 2022. I know that I am not the only one with this concern, the question is, do Leeds United really want to be associated with an event that thousands of innocent lives have tragically been lost whilst building stadiums and facilities? Leeds United is a worldwide name and we have fans all over the world, the perfect club to market such an event but we do not want to tarnish our name in the process. Without going into too much detail as it is a topic that I am not fully educated on, I for one do not want our club being involved with the marketing of an event that shouldn’t be taking place in Qatar if thousands of lives are taken to do so.
Another potential downside for me is will Leeds United have a say on which players make the transition from the Aspire academy to one of their partner clubs. If there are players on their books that have the talent and are good enough to play for Leeds United, then I am all for it. However, the last thing Leeds United need is to have an academy full of Aspire players that are not up to standard. Leeds United is a club well known for their academy and many players have gone on to play for their countries and to win major trophies. Although previous owners have done a good job of trying to destroy the academy and there is some rebuilding required, filling the academy with players from Qatar and potentially prevent local talent from having a chance isn’t what is required. As someone who watches a lot of the academy games and is a keen observer, there are several players brought in from abroad who have made the cut and at the end of the day it boils down to whether are not they are good enough, not where they have come from. Of course, we don’t know all the details of the partnership and this concern may be just be that, a concern.
For me these are my main two concerns and fans may have others of which I would be very interested to hear, tweet me at @focusonthefooty. One thing that would shed some light on it all would be more information from the club about the partnership, however vague that may be.