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Qatar-owned La Cultural's Real Madrid clash could lead to better things

A staple of each Spanish season is when a small lower division club "wins the lottery" and draws one of the La Liga giants in the Copa del Rey.

This year the TV cameras were at the ground of Segunda B side La Cultural y Deportiva Leonesa to capture the screams and cheers as the part-timers learned they would face Real Madrid in the round of 32.

Madrid's opponents this year are no ordinary minnows however, even though their 93 years of history includes just one season in the Primera Division. La Cultural are owned by Qatar's Aspire Academy, and have ambitions to soon be playing big-name rivals on a more regular basis.

But how did Aspire come to invest in a previously bankrupt club in the small Spanish city?

"Five years ago the club was about to disappear, with debts of over €3 million," La Cultural's general director Felipe Llamazares tells ESPN FC. "All the accounts were frozen, the employees had taken the club to court over unpaid wages. With help from local businessmen, we got promotion, while focusing on the youth system. But a moment came when we needed more money to continue. Looking for investors, or someone to buy the club, we found Aspire."

In summer 2015, Aspire formally took over the club and assumed debts of €1.7m, then immediately began implementing their youth development based model -- which Llamazares says followed what La Cultural had already been doing to rebuild everything from scratch.

"The Aspire philosophy is the same as ours," he says. "We have 17 youth teams here this year. We even have our school to train our own coaches. That is what we work on: young players and cantera."

After the takeover Llamazares remained in place, but he now works closely with Qatar's general director Ivan Bravo, a Spaniard who was previously director of strategy at Real Madrid.

"There is daily communication with Qatar," the former international basketball referee says. "Aspire manage all the financial ends. On the football side, we have a commission which includes Ivan Bravo, Ruben de la Barrera [first-team coach] and myself."

Bravo will be at the Reino de Leon on Wednesday night for a game in which Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane could rest superstars Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and company, with squad players such as Nacho Fernandez, Lucas Vazquez and Mariano Diaz likely to feature.

"We want the Madrid coach to choose the players he thinks is right," Llamazares says. "On a technical level, they are very far above us, they are European Champions and we are in the Segunda B. But for motivation and attitude and commitment they will not be better than us."

La Cultural should not lack for confidence either -- they currently top their Segunda B table under 31-year-old De la Barrera, having taken 26 points from their first 10 games and looking well set for the playoffs.

Villarreal and Eibar have shown in recent years that it is possible for well-run smaller clubs to make it from semi-pro status to La Liga and establish themselves there.

"It has been done before, so it can be possible here," Llamazares adds. "But we must not get distracted. The important thing is to not look at the final objective, but to enjoy the journey, at each stage. Our aim for this season is to reach the playoffs. When the moment comes, we will see if we can make it to La Segunda. We go step by step."

Aspire has also run Belgian side KAS Eupen since 2012, with the small club gaining promotion to the first division while also being used as a stepping stone for young Qatari and African players brought to Europe as part of the Aspire Football Dreams project.

La Cultural's current senior side is all-Spanish, apart from one time Netherlands Under-21, West Bromwich Albion and Real Mallorca defender Gianni Zuiverloon. The primary aim in Leon is to focus on developing local talent, although some young Qatari and African players already play in their successful youth teams.

"The future of La Cultural is to develop players from Leon, and then have the best young players from wherever they come from," Llamazares says. "All under the Aspire umbrella. We already have some Qatari and African players here too, to continue their development."

Despite the first-team's success this season, average attendance at the 13,000 capacity Reino de Leon is only 2,500. Wednesday's game against Madrid, and the return at the Bernabeu on Nov. 30, should attract more locals to take an interest in the club, according to Llamazares.

"This a shop-window for us to promote the brand of La Cultural all over the world, and also here in Leon," he says. "We want people from the city to come and see their team play against Real Madrid. All clubs need a strong social base to grow. We have 3,400 socios, we must get up to 6,000. There is everything here to have a top-flight team. La Cultural has not been there as it has not done things well in the past. This is the moment to change the story."

La Cultural's potential fairytale is more complex than most. A lot of people will be watching closely, not only against Madrid on Wednesday, to see how it develops from here.