Manchester City and Paris St. Germain may be the first clubs to come to mind when you think of wealthy Arabic owners, but they aren’t the only ones. In the north of Spain, in the small city of León, another slightly lesser-known club is benefiting in a similar way. Cultural y Deportiva Leonesa (known locally as La Cultu) were on the brink of extinction three years ago before a Qatari government-backed entity known as Aspire Academy took over.
Aspire Academy was formed in 2004 with the express purpose of improving the general standard of Qatari football and the development of Qatari players so that the country would not be humiliated when required to play at their World Cup in 2022. In addition to some extremely deep pockets and state-of-the art facilities — in the shape of an impressive blue domed structure — Aspire currently own La Cultu in Spain, Eupen in Belgium, LASK Linz in Austria and maintain a healthy, and formal, relationship with Leeds United in England. The network provides Aspire with a wide and knowledgeable base for furthering their academy products’ footballing education. In recent years, the system has proved to be quite successful and advantageous for all involved, especially La Cultu.
The Threat of Extinction
Cultural Leonesa have a long and storied history within Spanish football. The ninety-three year old club is the sole club of the Roman city of León, which is most famous for its impressive cathedral and being an important stop along the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James, an historical pilgrimage which starts in the south of France and finishes on the west coast of Spain). Throughout its existence the club has mostly competed in the Segunda División, Segunda División B or Tercera División, with its only top tier campaign coming all the way back in 1955/56. Times became increasingly difficult for the club after the turn of the millennium with financial difficulties leading to several setbacks, including compulsory relegation to the Tercera División in 2011 for unpaid debts and failure to pay staff wages. La Cultu were in a dire situation and were saved from extinction only by some savvy financial restructuring and negotiations with creditors which allowed the club to reduce the debts from 3,000,000€ down to 1,700,000€.
Over the next three seasons, the club, hamstrung by hefty repayments and a lack of serious income, were unable to purchase players. Therefore, it decided to concentrate on developing its youth system. However, in 2015, the club found itself staring into the abyss once more. This time it faced liquidation, 200,000€ worth of social security contributions needed to be paid urgently or the club would be wound up. It was in this moment that director, and former basketball referee, Felipe Llamazares decided that La Cultu were going to need outside investment if they were going to survive.
A Symbiotic Relationship?
Coincidentally, at the same time, Aspire, represented by Academy Director Iván Bravo and the lawyers Antonio Martín and José Lasa, were in Spain searching for a club with decent facilities and a great history to add to its ever growing global network of feeder teams. As soon as Cultural Leonesa came into the equation Aspire made the purchase, acquiring 99.7% of the organisation’s shares in the summer of 2015. The club’s focus on youth development led to the Aspire group believing a symbiotic relationship between the two entities could be possible. The arrangement also had the added bonus of allowing the club’s infrastructure to stay pretty much intact — Aspire just assumed responsibility for the debts and the financial well-being of the club.
Aspire’s first move was to pay the outstanding 200,000€ bill in order to avoid dissolution. After this, the playing ranks were swelled by talented youngsters brought in from the Aspire academy in Doha and other affiliate clubs. In the first season under the new ownership La Cultu managed a respectable 7th place in their Segunda B group. For the following season, young manager Rubén de la Barrera was hired to take over first-team affairs and the 2016-17 campaign was a massive success for the club, the impact of Aspire’s facilities, knowledge, and finance truly came to fruition. As well as achieving promotion to the Segunda División, for the first time in 31 years the side also had a wonderful cup run that was ended in the round of 32 thanks to a thrashing at the hands of Real Madrid.
The first season in the second category has been a steep learning curve for the Leoneses. They are currently in the midst of a relegation struggle, finding themselves in the final relegation spot in 19th place but only 1 point away from safety. Without doubt, the club would be disappointed to be sent back down the Segunda B but all involved are well aware that the project is a process, and if anything the side are currently well ahead of schedule, regardless of whether safety is achieved or not.
Beyond Qatar 2022
The acquisition and unlikely partnership has had a positive impact beyond the football pitch as well. León’s relatively close proximity to Madrid has meant that, traditionally, the city’s allegiances have lied with the capital’s powerhouses Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid. But the La Cultu’s recent escapades have led to a surge in local support. After gaining promotion, the number of season-ticket holders increased from 1,500 to 4,000. Many residents have also noted how it is now far more common to see Leoneses clad in the club colours.
The short-term goal is to help produce players capable of performing at the upcoming Qatar World Cup. There is no secret about that — this is the club’s purpose, and at the moment all the residual success is just a bonus. Ivan Bravo has recently stated how Aspire is now in the final phase of that particular project with the World Cup only four and a half years away. At the same time, though, neither entity has been quiet about the ultimate vision for La Cultu, which is promotion to La Liga. When looking at the likes of Man City or PSG, and especially the more infamous cases of Leeds United and Portsmouth FC, it’s easy to jump to conclusions or be suspicious about wealthy owners and certainly a case can be made about the artificiality or footballing authenticity of such projects, but you won’t find fans of La Cultu complaining about those things anytime soon. Three years ago their club would have ceased to exist if it were not for their unlikely saviours, so they’re just going to sit back, watch the football and enjoy the journey.