Aspirational Culture

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman

Leeds United, and glitz. The words don’t sit easily together, and neither do the concepts.

Is what Andrea Radrizzani and his team have brought to the club this summer glitzy? I’m not sure how else to describe it. It’s something beyond ‘professional’ or ‘businesslike’, although those are in place. The quiet way Elland Road was repurchased, the conversations with the council about the stadium and new training facilities, the lack of transfer leaks, all suggest the club has moved on from the days of the owner waking up at lunchtime and following his instincts, until his instincts led him to crack open another bottle of Chivas Regal.

In front of all the solid background work, though, there has been plenty to see. If works run on time, Elland Road will be looking very different at the start of this season to how we left it last. For a start, we didn’t expect to see anyone other than Garry Monk in the head coach’s seat, and now we have a whole dugout of new people. And possibly, soon, new dugouts.

That brings us to the stadium itself. The buyback was significant, reclaiming Elland Road from the obscurist ownership of Teak Trading in the British Virgin Islands and placing it — hopefully securely — with Radrizzani’s company Greenfield Investment Pte was the biggest financial, symbolic and emotional statement a Leeds United owner has made in years. The biggest positive statement, at least.

Radrizzani is not backward about dragging Leeds United forward

But in its way, something smaller feels as significant. Walk through the Kop gates, between brick walls that have stood since the 1920s, gates where perhaps you bought this magazine, and you’ll see it — or rather, you won’t. The old programme cabin, more recently used as a staff signing in point, has been demolished, the ground where it once stood freshly tarmaced.

What was stopping anyone from removing it before? Not much, certainly not since it ceased to sell programmes. Nobody really minded it being there, and I doubt many will be upset to see it gone, except perhaps those who enjoyed buying and selling obscure aways in there over the years. It’s a change that didn’t need making, but now it has been made, you wonder why it wasn’t done years ago.

Questions that Radrizzani and co don’t seem to be spending much time wondering about themselves. Gulf Finance House, when they took over from Ken Bates, sold season tickets with the slogan ‘The Past is The Past’, but they had no sincere plan for Leeds United’s future. The future seems to be all Radrizzani is focused on.

Which is not to say he doesn’t care about the past. In fact, by looking so singularly to the future, Radrizzani is paying more heed to the club’s heritage than GFH ever did. GFH saw the past as something to be left behind and — despite David Haigh’s claim that his Beeston roots ran deeper than the well beneath the pitch — something they didn’t understand anyway. To Radrizzani, it’s the basis upon which the club’s future can be built. Or at least branded and marketed.

Experience with GFH, and with modern football in general, force a cynical frame around many of the changes of the summer. Images of club legends around the stadium are easily achieved and likely to easily please the supporters, and whether it’s a sincere reconnection with the past or a quick ’n’ easy charm offensive is up for debate. It’s probably a lot of both; and the truth is that from a supporter’s point of view both are necessary.

Back in January, assessing first impressions of Radrizzani and trying to understand why the hell he was buying Leeds United, I guesstimated that with his business partner Riccardo Silva charging ahead and enjoying life with NASL team Miami FC, his long-standing business interest in sports broadcasting, and recent ascent to president of Baofeng Sport, a business in China seeking to monetise sports internet and virtual reality platforms, Radrizzani was not going to be backward about dragging Leeds United forward.

So it has proved. The new changing rooms have taken the players’ facilities from suburban leisure centre to five-star gym; the West Stand now has an entrance worthy of a top city financial firm; the proletarian north-east entrance proudly declares its allegiance to the club, past and present, and digital advertising hoardings are rumoured to be due any moment, perhaps followed by a dugout full of rally car seats, just like you see on the telly.

Just like you see on the telly is a good way of describing this rapid modernisation. Elland Road no longer feels as far out of step with its televised equivalents, not quite as weird to a first time visitor raised on Sky Super Sundays as it might recently have been.

The downside to looking like a football club from off the telly is that all the clubs on the telly look the same now, and our club is not the same. Our club is Leeds United, and if it has stood out from the crowd in recent years because it has remained stubbornly old school despite the creeping blandnesses of the Readings of this world, that’s not been a point of shame: it’s been a point of pride. Like taking seven thousand away, Elland Road’s wild untellyness has become part of the club’s raison d’être — and, ironically, part of the reason the club is always on the telly.

Links to Cultural Leonesa are a new aspect of Leeds United

Except, bizarrely, on its own TV channel. The one shambles of the summer has, also ironically, been in the one area in which Radrizzani has been most trusted to deliver. Eleven, his sports streaming platform, performs well across Europe, building on the years of work in sports media that built Radrizzani’s fortune. Taking charge of LUTV, unveiling new free programming, installing new hosts and opting out of the Football League’s iFollow platform for overseas streaming promised the club’s media would soon be as slick as a Kappa-Kombat shirt pulled over an otter.

Instead the club could barely get any coverage home from preseason in Austria; first bringing down LUTV and the entire club website for the Borussia Mönchengladbach match, then presenting an empty Facebook page to viewers expecting to watch the Eibar game. Compounding the embarrassment both times was the easy availability of streams on less legit platforms, and the shame was completed, and the opportunity to blame ‘local providers’ deleted, when the Oxford game at Elland Road didn’t make it on air on LUTV — a broadcast fans had battled through a cumbersome signup process and paid two quid each to watch.

We shouldn’t make too much of this. Things go wrong, especially in preseason, when they’re being tested. Hadi Sacko has had a year to practice, but he was still struggling to find Chris Wood against Oxford. Equally, though, we shouldn’t ignore it. Sacko should be able to square the ball to Wood, and rightly gets complaints when he doesn’t; LUTV should be able to show Leeds United games when it says it will, and should be criticised when it doesn’t.

That LUTV falls plumb in the lap of Radrizzani’s skill set — again, like Sacko — only makes it worse. The cynical frame mentioned above was crafted by the cumulative works of every owner and chairman of Leeds United since, well, since 1996 basically, if not earlier. If we remember our history, as Radrizzani’s heritage-heavy branding suggests we should, we should remember all the times we’ve been conned before, and look for patterns in case of it happening again, no matter how swell times seem. The European Cup final will be impartially refereed, of course. Fabian Delph’s transfer fee will definitely be invested in the team. The bank will be visited and the ground bought back tomorrow, trust me. The past is the past, and these smiling men in suits are here to prove it.

The gut feeling about Andrea Radrizzani is that he truly is different, and that the glitz doesn’t mask murk; but consistently tuning into a blank picture during preseason gave suspicious lovers of metaphors — me — something to work with. Radrizzani promises ultra hi-def imagery, but so far he has only delivered the digital equivalent of obscuring static; what else are we not seeing, apart from the team playing on the telly?

The links to Cultural Leonesa, a team in the Spanish second tier to whom Leeds have loaned at least one newly bought player, are a new aspect of Leeds United that has received little light. Given that the links are via Qatar’s Aspire Academy, whose Director-General Ivan Bravo is a board member at Leeds and vice-president at Leonesa, it’s an area where light could be useful, given wider questions about Aspire’s role in Qatar’s World Cup bid, its ongoing role in building Qatar’s squad for said World Cup in 2022, and the troubling reputation Qatar has in general, encompassing the deaths of migrant workers during World Cup stadium construction and the recent trade blockade by Gulf states accusing Qatar of harbouring terrorists.

Cultural Leonesa are 99% owned by Aspire, and are not the only European club Aspire own. KAS Eupen were bought in 2012 and play in Belgium’s top division, and are described by Aspire as a “stress test” for its Academy players: “The club … functions as a stepping stone for Aspire’s local Qatari players as well as ‘Aspire Football Dreams’ scholarship players.” The players on the Dreams programme have been selected, according to the New York Times, from hundreds of thousands of young players scouted across Africa since 2007, the best of them brought to Aspire’s training camps in Doha and Senegal and then, via Eupen, given competitive experience and European passports, to facilitate transfers to prestigious European clubs, raising the reputation of Aspire and, by extension, Qatar as a centre of sporting excellence.

Ivan Bravo has barely been seen so far, yet his influence is crucial

According to Transfermarkt.com, Eupen’s first team squad of twenty-six currently contains twelve players transferred from Aspire Doha, Aspire Senegal, or Qatari club sides. Observers suggest that some of these players will later be given Qatari citizenship and assimilated into Qatar’s 2022 squad; Aspire firmly deny this, although they do acknowledge that developing players for the Qatari national side is one of their general aims.

Beyond Belgium, Aspire has had formal links with Ecuador’s Independiente del Valle since December 2015, since when Sebestian Mendez has been loaned for several months from Independiente to Cultural Leonesa, where he played six minutes in the first team before heading back; and this June Aspire signed a “technical partnership” with Indian Super League side Delhi Dynamos FC, with an emphasis on “knowledge transfer” to improve the Dynamos club. Aspire has already recruited a new head coach on Dynamos’ behalf, Ivan Bravo’s friend Miguel Angel Portugal.

The extent to which Leeds United is involved with this network is’t clear — there has been no formal announcement of a link to Aspire or to Cultural Leonesa, so we can only read Ivan Bravo’s presence at all three. Without that confirmation, it’s hard to entirely trust the confirmed deal in which Leeds United signed Ouasim Bouy from Ajax, and loaned him immediately to Leonesa, or deals rumoured to be taking place in the same manner, involving Rodrigo Rios from Cordoba and Tony Villa from Vallodolid. At the time of writing the former has moved to Cultural Leonesa, with local reports stating that Leeds “acquired his rights” along the way. Reports are also suggesting that Leeds might trigger Villa’s £4m release clause — while others talk of bids around £300,000 — then loan him straight to Leonesa, where he spent last season on loan anyway, making forty appearances and scoring seven goals in the Spanish third tier.

Who would benefit most from that deal isn’t clear, whether it’s Leeds, acquiring a talented player for the future (Villa is 22), or Leonesa essentially having the star of their promotion campaign bought for them by Leeds United. It has been suggested that Leeds could gain under Financial Fair Play regulations by having young players in their ownership improve in the first team of another club, so that subsequent transfer profit can be added to the FFP balance sheet at Leeds; but that’s a risky bet for a low return, especially on a player like Bouy, who is already 24 and has failed to make a significant impression at any of seven clubs he’s played for. Rodrigo Rios, whose rights may have been “acquired” by Leeds as he moved to Leonesa, is 27, and his career to date doesn’t suggest any reason why his transfer value would increase so dramatically so late in his career as to make a worthwhile dent in FFP.

With Angus Kinnear reasonably pointing out the severe disadvantage Leeds United face in the Championship while clubs like Middlesbrough are chucking their parachute payments around, and using that to justify increased ticket prices — the club took in twice as much on the gate in 2015/16 as it made from TV — there falls upon the club a responsibility to ensure that our ticket money is spent very wisely — and spent where we can see the benefit. Linking into a network of clubs could be very fruitful for Leeds, opening up access to new areas of talent. But it hasn’t done much good for Charlton Athletic, whose owner Roland Duchâtelet also owns Carl Zeiss Jena, Alcoran, Ujpest and Sint-Truidense in Belgium — where Jordan Botaka has ended up, after a season on loan from Leeds to Charlton. And for its benefit to Leeds to be truly assessed, any link up has to actually, formally exist, with a statement of its intentions and aims, so we can judge its success or otherwise — rather than as an ad-hoc arrangement of transfers and loans being sorted through the contact books of Ivan Bravo and the Qatari monarchy.

Leonesa’s sporting director Oscar Cano explained how they signed Bouy, while also explaining nothing: “It has to do with the relationship between the tentacles that are part of the macro-project in which we are immersed,” he said. “But the possibilities of Leeds are different from ours. In this case we have been great beneficiaries of the arrival of Bouy because we could not access a player of his magnitude.”

At the moment we have to take the tentacles on trust, and so far, Andrea Radrizzani seems trustworthy — Elland Road, tick, overhauled squad, tick, improved media — well, we can give him time on that. But it’s that media we’ll be relying on to tell us more about any Aspire Academy links, perhaps by letting us see and hear from Ivan Bravo so we can judge his trustworthiness for ourselves. He’s barely been seen so far, and yet his influence over the club is slowly being revealed as crucial.

What’s in front of us as we start the season looks good, and we’ve every reason to be optimistic about the new season, and the seasons ahead. Walking into the ground without having to dodge a sixties portacabin, entering the turnstiles beneath banners of Revie and Bremner, Wilkinson and Strachan, ready to watch Saiz and Klich and find out what Christiansen is made of: it feels good to be here, watching Leeds United at Elland Road, and to feel like things are going our way.

History is important, though, and our history has taught us not to be distracted by glitz: an evening playing carpet bowls beats a night at Majestyk’s, anyway. And our history has taught us that it’s not what’s in front of us that we have to worry about. Elland Road is the only place for us, but what happens in the BVI, Monaco, Dubai, Italy, and now Qatar, Belgium, Spain and Ecuador, can be out of sight until it’s already happened. That’s when we wish we’d seen the whole picture through the static. ⬢

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