KAS Eupen: Stepping Stone Into Professional Football
KAS Eupen is a Belgian professional football club that currently plays in the ‘Jupiler Pro League’ (1st Division) and serves an important role in the philosophy of Aspire Academy: The club, in which the football related activities of the club were taken over by Aspire Zone Foundation (AZF) in 2012 while still playing in the 2nd Division, functions as a stepping stone for Aspire's local Qatari players as well as 'Aspire Football Dreams' scholarship players to guarantee a smooth and successful transition from youth to professional football.
Christoph Henkel, Executive Director of KAS Eupen: “We made a conscious effort to quickly integrate the club, its players and the idea behind the project into the city. It was a huge advantage that the young lads had already learnt how to embrace other cultures as part of their education at Aspire.” Only the Belgian weather – frequent rain, even the hottest summer days seldom exceed 30 degrees, and in winter the temperature can drop to minus ten – was found to be a little hostile by the newcomers. Apart from the external conditions, everything else at KAS Eupen conforms to the Aspire philosophy of educating champions in sport and in life. “This is the next stage in the training of our young players. The club offers the perfect opportunity to make the jump from junior to adult football and to learn what it means in a practical sense to be a professional player.”
When Aspire Zone Foundation became the new owner of KAS Eupen in June 2012, the initial response from the city on the German-Belgian border, population 18,000, was reserved. But the foreign investor from distant Qatar was soon recognized as a highly professional partner – one who laid solid foundations for future success, modernised the structure and organisation of the club, quickly earned trust by honouring current contracts and bolstered the team by recruiting a raft of new players who had previously been part of the football programme of Aspire Academy in Doha or 'Aspire Football Dreams' in Senegal.
Eupen is also a launching pad for younger players into the top tiers of European football. Henkel, former head of the junior academy of German Bundesliga club 1. FC Köln, knows what it takes: “Many players dream of a great career. But only a few can make that dream come true. Talent and football skills alone are not enough. Young ambitious players have to work even harder in order to make it in professional football and to realize the dream to represent their home countries at the World Cup 2022 in Qatar.”
The medium-term goal of the club itself has been reached in 2016: the promotion to the Belgian first division, which in the past few years has emerged as a breeding ground for players destined for top European, mostly English, clubs. For example, Romelu Lukaku plays for FC Everton, Marounane Fellaini joined Manchester United, whilst Eden Hazard was signed by Chelsea FC. The timing of Aspire's move into Belgium also seems perfect for another reason: the national team of the Kingdom of Belgium, population 11 million, are the rising stars of European football and qualified in style for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Living the Aspire Philosophy
It goes without saying that the academic side is not ignored in Eupen. “Some of the young players are, at 18 years, still in education. It’s important to us that they graduate,” explains Henkel. As in Qatar, education in Belgium does not end for Aspire students with the final school exam. To ensure this happens, Stefan Wetzel started his job as the Manager for Education and Life Skills with the club in 2013.
Following his stint in Doha he has been tasked with developing a training programme for the Belgian club designed to enable players to pursue an education in parallel to sport. “Whether students are striving for qualifications, school leaving certificates, certificates of access to higher education or learning a new language, we will do our best to support them,” stresses Wetzel.
Find out more about KAS Eupen at www.as-eupen.be