Spanish club Real Madrid has become the latest top European team to capitalize on mounting criticism that Middle Eastern nations have failed to nurture soccer talent at a young age, following their disappointing performance at last month’s Asian Cup in Qatar.
In the footsteps of FC Inter Milan and FC Arsenal—who announced school openings in the Middle East and North Africa last month—Real Madrid is scheduled to sign an agreement on Monday to establish Saudi Arabia’s first sports academy.
The agreement between the Real Madrid Foundation (RMF), the club’s social outreach arm, and the Prince Salman Foundation is to be signed by Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Salman and RMF President Florentino Perez. Perez is also the head of Spanish construction company ACS.
Real Madrid sealed a sponsorship agreement with Saudi Telecom (STC) six months after playing an exhibition match against Riyadh’s Al-Nassr Club.
As part of the deal, STC is entitled to use 12 minutes of every Real Madrid home game the team played for promotional purposes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Indonesia.
It also guarantees that 70 Saudis can do summer training with Real Madrid, and offers Real Madrid mobile subscribers the chance to attend local and international club matches.
The schools in the Middle East and North Africa offer the European premier league clubs the opportunity to generate cash and scout for young talent.
They also allow ruling Arab elites, rattled by mass anti-government protests across the Middle East and North Africa, to project an image of tackling an issue that has sparked criticism from the media and soccer professionals alike—a result of all Middle Eastern nations being knocked out of the Asia tournament in Qatar by the quarterfinals.
The Jeddah-based Arab News noted in an editorial immediately after the Asian Cup that Saudi Arabia—a country that historically has put greater premium on religious education than on learning skills that advance careers—has yet to allocate resources to develop soccer at a young age, or establish a training academy for talented players.
Arsenal, which already operates schools in Bahrain, Dubai, Oman, Morocco and Egypt said last month that it would be opening this year at least six more schools in the Middle East and North Africa. Inter-Milan announced the opening of a school in Abu Dhabi.
In a burst of optimism, Arsenal included Tunisia, which has been wracked by protest demonstrations for more than a month.
These demonstrations toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and inspired demonstrators to take to streets across the Middle East in protest against rising commodity prices and lack of political freedom.
James M. Dorsey authors The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.