How Atlético Madrid’s Saúl Ñíguez And An Academy Are Reviving Soccer In Alicante

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How Atlético Madrid’s Saúl Ñíguez And An Academy Are Reviving Soccer In Alicante

The golden Spanish city of Alicante is not known for its soccer scene. At least, not as much as Madrid, Barcelona and areas of Andalusia and the Basque Country, for example.

Alicante province is home to just one first division club, Elche, and its city side Hercules—despite its strong support—plays in the vast Segunda B, the regional third tier, and last appeared in La Liga a decade ago.

But thanks to a young club owned by Atlético Madrid midfielder Saúl Ñíguez and his brother Aarón, and a progressive academy program nearby, the game has embarked on an exciting path on the country’s East Coast. And while the location may not produce a flurry of world-beating teams, soccer has progressed in other ways.

Almost a year has passed since Saúl announced his new team-stroke-soccer project Club Costa City, sponsored by Nike and illuminated by striking, neon green-on-black branding. Nearby, Alicante City FC, an ambitious academy, is welcoming a diverse set of aspirational players aiming to make a name for themselves on the Iberian peninsula.

First to Club Costa City. After Saúl revealed its creation via social media last June, the enterprise has been gathering pace ahead of its first anniversary.

The club predominantly consists of youth sides, although both Ñíguez siblings hope to one day form a first team capable of climbing the Spanish league pyramid. Their primary objective, though, is to help young locals be their best selves. Both players come from Elche too, which adds even more motivation.

“The main aim is to provide a thorough education,” says Aarón, aged 32 and winger for La Nucía near Benidorm.

“We invest in forming people first, who can identify with, value and acquire healthy life habits, so they have strong values and can use these in society.

Perhaps the club’s salient characteristic is its commitment to the women’s game; once inconspicuous in Spain but now woven into its soccer tapestry due to increased stature, a respected first division and a capable national squad coached by Jorge Vilda.

And one major development is the club’s agreement with Miguel Hernández University in Elche to launch a new Master’s course next season, entitled “Leadership in Women’s Soccer.”

There is great potential, and the club is keen to harness practices such as nutrition, pedagogy, physiotherapy and psychology to advance its players. But much of this remains a vision, with Aarón and Saúl still playing professionally.

“There are still some years to go until this, and for me fewer,” Aarón jokes when I ask him how the project might develop when he and his brother hang up their boots.

“It will be a great success if, when Saúl retires, he was to focus on this project.

Over at Alicante City FC, while nurturing the person and the player is also a feature, the chief idea is to attract participants worldwide by providing them with modern facilities and a route into the professional leagues.

“Alicante already has a hotbed of talent, but now international players are also starting to make names for themselves around the province,” Philip Phillipou, the academy’s director, informs me.

“Our aim as an academy was to develop players from abroad and find clubs for them in surrounding areas. 

“We now have a database of thousands of players after sending players to Australia, the U.S. and many European countries over the last ten years. This allows us to recruit players from around the world.”

In only its first year, the academy welcomed faces from St Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean to Lebanon in the Middle East. Of course, there is no guarantee that recruits will go on to star for well-known teams, but the option to study for a Master’s degree and other courses means they have something to gain in Spain.

For those who impress, the academy is a springboard because of the infrastructure and technology it uses to develop players.

“Players have the unique opportunity to train and play full-time while competing in the Spanish leagues, with opportunities to go to clubs around the world using the video footage that they have received with us,” adds Phillipou.

“Additionally, we now stream all our games live, which allows friends and family from around the world to watch their games every week.”

Providing soccer enthusiasts with the foundations to succeed is the academy’s purpose, but it wants to achieve more.

“The priority is to develop the individual on and off the field to give them life skills and to set them up for future endeavors,” Phillipou continues. “But our long-term club aim, in the next five years, is to be playing in the third division, and in 12 years to be playing in La Liga.”

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