While Real Madrid’s players were preparing for this week’s huge Champions League and La Liga games against Juventus and Barcelona, 500 children aged between six and thirteen were attending training sessions at the Spanish football club’s two new academies in East Timor.
These academies are not scouting outposts aiming to find the next Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale, but educational centres funded by the Realmadrid Foundation and its partners, and run in collaboration with the ministry of education in one of the world’s newest countries.
In recent weeks the foundation has also organised a training course for 43 Colombian youth coaches, provided new sports kit to 100 ‘at-risk’ children aged between six and nine at its academy in Mozambique, and hosted tournaments for over 1,000 children in Japan and Panama.
The Realmadrid Foundation seeks to promote our values through sports and education, teaching children human values such as commitment, responsibility and teamwork, which will be central to their success in their future work life
Such activities all form part of Real Madrid’s mission to spread its ‘values’ to children around the world, according to former Blancos centre-forward Emilio Butragueño, who is now the club’s director of institutional relations.
"Real Madrid is a legendary football club with over a century of sporting and social history," said Butragueño.
"The Realmadrid Foundation seeks to promote our values through sports and education, teaching children human values such as commitment, responsibility and teamwork, which will be central to their success in their future work life.
"We feel the need to give back to society and to our fan base, by assisting the most vulnerable people, at-risk children and youngsters living in precarious conditions or exposed to violence, poverty, drugs and crime."
Most fans of Ronaldo or Bale are likely unaware, but Madrid’s foundation was established in 1997 and now organises a range of activities both in Spain and overseas, which are about more than just football or basketball training.
The organisation runs regular ‘sports camps’ for children around Spain, while also working in prisons and hospitals, and with immigrants and individuals with physical or learning difficulties.
Its global activities are more development focused - with an extra focus on healthcare and the personal well-being of the children who attend. Academy staff are given specialist training, and activities at each academy are often run in conjunction with government bodies or private NGOs.
"At the foundation’s social sports schools the children participate in training, games and events, while at the same time going to school or taking part in a professional training programme," Butragueño said.
"They also benefit from social services adjusted to their specific needs, such as classes and workshops on different themes, medical check-ups, psychological follow-up [and the provision of] snacks and school supplies."
Madrid president Florentino Pérez told the club’s AGM in September that it currently operates 317 projects in 68 countries, which help more than 60,000 people on five continents.
Facilities have been opened in Middle East countries including Kuwait, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, while one is even planned for Iraq / Kurdistan.
Funding for these projects comes from the club - the richest in the world with an annual turnover of over $687 million – and includes the proceeds from ‘legends’ games featuring former Madrid stars such as Butragueño and current first team assistant coach Zinedine Zidane.
Corporate partnerships are also a major source of the foundation's resources however. For example Microsoft has provided computer software worth a reported $1.38 million to an initiative to reach 20,000 children in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico.
| Butragueño (front L) helps raise money as part of Real Madrid's legends team [GETTY]
"We are two businesses who are in the DNA of young people, in technology and sport," María Garaña, president of Microsoft España, said as the partnership between football club and technology giant was launched last May.
It is striking how the club has expanded its development and charitable work in different countries around the world in recent years, just as Pérez has focused the club’s commercial growth on emerging markets - evidenced by plans for a Real Madrid themed ‘resort island’ in the UAE or the current $41 million a year shirt sponsorship deal with Emirates Airline.
While skeptics might say that the club's budget for development-type activities is not too significant when put beside the multi-million euro salaries paid to its ‘galáctico’ footballers, Butragueño preferred to focus on the positive influence that the foundation can bring to the lives of those it helps.
The former Spanish international forward was in Bogota in May to help launch the Microsoft project, and he returned to Colombia last month to be guest of honour at a ‘reconciliation’ football tournament played between former FARC guerrillas and former adversaries from other paramilitary organisations.
"The club’s figures all support the foundation’s activities whenever they can," Butragueño said.
"This is Real Madrid Football Club’s chosen vehicle for corporate social investment globally. Our partnership with Microsoft represents a major step in the advancement and improvement of their programmes but, above all, in the progress of Latin youth. The overall aim is to promote the inherent values of sport as an educational tool."
Dermot Corrigan is an Irish writer who lives in Madrid and writes about Spanish football for a variety of international and local media including ESPNfc.com, FOXsoccer.com, When Saturday Comes and the Irish Examiner. You can follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.
Source: Al Jazeera