On Monday, Spanish club Real Madrid inaugurated its latest sports academy in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
“The efforts of the academy will be employed for the benefit of stimulating all cultural aspects related to sports, forming local talents and preparing them for a bright future; thus, promoting sports among the Emirati Youth as part of a healthy lifestyle and asserting the UAE's position as a regional sports hub," WAM, the official UAE news agency quoted Wael Tawil, CEO of Baniyas Holding as saying. Baniyas has a sports academy that has partnered with Real Madrid.
Real Madrid is the latest top European team to capitalize on mounting criticism that Middle Eastern nations have failed to nurture soccer talent at a young age resulting in their disappointing performance at last month’s Asian Cup in Qatar.
Following in the footsteps of FC Inter Milan and FC Arsenal, who last month announced school openings in the Middle East and Northern Africa, Real Madrid earlier this month signed an agreement to establish Saudi Arabia’s first sports academy.
Monday’s opening in Abu Dhabi was attended by senior members of the Abu Dhabi government and royal family as well as the president of the Real Madrid Foundation (RMF)—the club’s social outreach arm—Florentino Perez, who also heads 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 participate in summer training with Real Madrid and offers Real Madrid mobile subscribers the chance to attend club local and international matches.
The schools in the Middle East and Northern Africa offer the European premier league clubs an opportunity to generate cash and scout for young talent. They also take on significance as Qatar’s winning of its bid to host the 2022 World Cup pushes professionalization and a raising of standards of soccer across the Middle East.
The schools 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 as a result of all Middle Eastern nations being knocked out of the Asia tournament in Qatar by the quarter finals.
The Jeddah-based Arab News noted in an editorial immediately after the Asian Cup that Saudi Arabia, a country that historically has put a greater premium on religious education than on learning the 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 at least six more schools this year in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Inter-Milan also announced the opening of a school in Abu Dhabi.
James M. Dorsey authors The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog