Why clubs are going to the UAE while the World Cup is on


Brendan Rodgers and his Leicester City players are finding out this week why the United Arab Emirates is the destination of choice for mid-season Premier League getaways.

At the multi-purpose training centre close to the Ritz Carlton in Abu Dhabi sits a huge marquee specifically erected for all of Leicester’s needs.

Inside there’s an area for rehabilitation and a camera tower to help the analysts record training in the same way they would do back at base in England. That’s alongside a floodlight FIFA-standard field, a separate seven-a-side pitch, a goalkeeper area, a dedicated clubhouse, a state-of-the-art gym and private changing rooms.

Chelsea will also be able to use the services when they arrive next week ahead of a friendly with Aston Villa as part of their preparation for the Boxing Day return to action.

For Leicester, though, the focus has been on additional training time as a group. Rodgers helped spark an upturn in form before the World Cup as the side, now sitting in 13th place, moved off the bottom with four wins out of the last five games. The trip in the sun will be used as further time for team-bonding. The players have trained hard and with intensity each day. In their spare time they’ve played golf and watched the international games in neighbouring Qatar as a group. The ‘home from home” that has been created for them justifies the reason for a warm-weather getaway, a change of scenery and an opportunity to grow together. Everything they need is provided at a venue growing in popularity as sports clubs look for around-the-clock service in a private and glamorous environment.

Manchester City have a week in Abu Dhabi and Arsenal, Liverpool, Lyon and AC Milan will be close by for the Dubai Super Cup which runs from December 8-16.

An hour away in Dubai, meanwhile, a hub of activity is developing as Bournemouth, Brighton & Hove Albion and Villa are all staying together near the Jebel Ali Resort.

There are five training pitches there so teams that stay at the same time do not feel on top of each other. Some clubs prefer exclusivity, though, which is among the reasons why Tottenham Hotspur didn’t travel for a break.

Last week Championship clubs Stoke, Sunderland and Luton Town were also at Jebel Ali. Sunderland manager Tony Mowbray said: “For me, it’s about the bonding and the ability to be together. To have breakfast, lunch, training and on an evening watch the World Cup matches together, there will be a benefit.”

Chris Brown runs CBF, a performance, education and management company in the UAE which helps professional clubs with their trips. He’s liked and well-respected after working for 18 years in the region and has close links with international teams and high-profile clubs across the globe. He organises everything from hotel accommodation to making sure the sprinklers come on at the right time for training. He also put together the friendly between Villa and Chelsea, scheduled for December 11, and launched a growing youth tournament called the Mina Cup.

“The UAE is big on the list for many clubs because you’ve got the weather, the facilities, the hotels and the nice life all thrown together,” he says.

“We’re seeing the most interest in Abu Dhabi right now because the sporting infrastructure is growing all the time.”

Hundreds of players have visited for individual sessions, too.

Locals say the last two weeks have been among the busiest ever period for footballers visiting the region. Many jetted over from the UK to escape the cold weather and take advantage of a rare winter break, opened up by the unusual timing of the World Cup.

Premier League and Championship clubs gave players up to ten days off and encouraged rest, recuperation and some family time. Players were all given a carefully-structured programme that could be followed from anywhere in the world, and many chose the UAE to keep their fitness levels ticking over before the return.

Arsenal forward Eddie Nketiah was one of the players who visited Dubai and spent additional time working on his finishing as well as overseeing a workout plan devised by his club. Non-World Cup players were told by Mikel Arteta to take a holiday but stay in shape by completing low-load distance training, a series of high-intensity sessions and also a gym programme.

Arsenal also trained in Dubai during the mid-season break in February 2022 (Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Manchester United’s Donny van de Beek was here as well as the full-back, Brandon Williams. Van de Beek trained alongside Antony Gordon, his former Everton team-mate from last year where the Dutchman spent a short period on loan.

Liverpool’s James Milner worked with a coach from his club as he had some down-time in the area; Brighton & Hove Albion pair Danny Welbeck and Pascal Gross asked for individual sessions during their holidays and Leeds United’s duo Liam Cooper and Mateusz Klich worked through some short, sharp drills, laid on by trusted local trainers.

Many of the players were just “ticking over” and wanted to use the high-level facilities to stay on top of their fitness. Among the popular places to train at is the Nad Al Sheba (NAS) Sports Complex, one of the most comprehensive facilities in the world.

The NAS — as it is known — has two FIFA-standard pitches, a gym with the finest strength and conditioning equipment, an athletics track, indoor courts, cryotherapy chambers, an underwater treadmill, 150 staff and a full medical department. It is heavily supported by Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan and closed off to the public.

Every high-level footballer visiting this part of the world is aware of the facility and clubs are comfortable with their players attending, largely because many have spent time there on previous trips and recognise the care and consideration of staff alongside the world-class similarities to their own training grounds.

Others like Christian Benteke required a little more attention. The DC United striker arrived in the middle of a three-week training plan and still had hopes of earning a call-up to Belgium’s World Cup squad. With the MLS season finished, Benteke needed a heavy and detailed programme. He worked hard in the heat on high-intensity running with a specific focus on sprinting. He was ready for the call from departing Belgium boss Roberto Martinez but it never arrived and he was forced to watch on as his nation departed at the group stage.

For those who missed out on World Cup squads there were mixed feelings when travelling to the Middle East. Boubacar Kamara hoped his return to fitness at Aston Villa would earn him a call-up to the France squad but he missed out, even with the absence of fellow midfielder’s Paul Pogba and N’golo Kante. Kamara instead went sightseeing in Abu Dhabi with his partner.

The UAE, now a recognised hub for football players visiting across the globe, has soared in visitor numbers this month and continues to grow in popularity. The rich and famous are looked after in luxurious resorts and there’s still a degree of privacy available.

Emmanuel Ntow runs Amslux, a football lifestyle management group that creates bespoke holiday packages for players as part of its  services. He’s noticed a huge spike in requests from players across Europe wanting to stay in Dubai but also watch some of the World Cup in Qatar.

“Because Dubai and Doha are not too far away from each other, we’ve been busy organising lots of trips during their winter breaks,” Emmanuel says.

“Players want to eat at good restaurants, go on helicopter tours, spend some time on a yacht and visit the best beach clubs, but this year they’ve also enjoyed watching the games together.

“Having the games on has been an added bonus and the players have enjoyed the options both in Dubai and Doha.”

People with a long history of working in football in Dubai remember way back to the early 2000s when clubs first started coming over. Bayern Munich were among the first to enjoy the experience. David Moyes also brought his Everton side for a trip and the word quickly started to spread.

Dubai developed into an ideal destination to send injured players for rehabilitation. The idea of mixing up a long, laborious recovery programme for players with a period in a warmer climate appealed.

Real Madrid and AC Milan compete in the Dubai International Cup in December 2014 (Photo: KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images)

Sean O’Shea used to be the head of football at NAS when clubs like Real Madrid, Manchester United and AC Milan started visiting and subsequently helped raise the profile. He worked with players like Virgil van Dijk and Luke Shaw during his time there before moving over to Sweden as the assistant manager of AIK.

Now back in Dubai, the UEFA pro licence coach runs individual sessions for players alongside working as the director of football for Cognita Middle East – a large group of schools that offer a football programme to students.

Last week he trained the Republic of Ireland striker Adam Idah who is hoping to return to action following a knee injury. Norwich City allowed the 21-year-old to continue his recovery away from their Colney training ground and interacted with O’Shea throughout the trip. All the data from Idah’s sessions was sent back to Norwich for analysis and building that level of trust remains key.

“Dubai is the perfect destination for players who want some extra training during a mid-season break or the off-season,” O’Shea says.

“So many players have been here during the World Cup. I speak to them about their club programme and then build in some of my own ideas into their sessions here.

“Some players are really detailed and want to work on specific parts of their game like crossing, finishing, or defensive heading. Others want short, sharp stuff.”

Chris Bowman runs Elite Sports Performance in Dubai and had 27 players with him over the last few weeks.

A former physio at Leeds United, Chris moved to Dubai in 2018 with the aim of developing an outreach service for clubs and athletes. He now has a small team of staff including therapists and strength & conditioning coaches working out of the performance centre at Jumeirah Beach Club. Clubs in England and the rest of Europe contact him directly to assist with rehabilitation work and other coaching.

In the summer, the England midfielder Declan Rice spent a week training with the team. Newcastle United’s Jacob Murphy, Nottingham Forest’s Omar Richards and Rangers’ Ryan Jack were here recently.

“The volume of players out in this region has been higher than ever,“ Chris says.

“For us, having transparency with the clubs that the players represent is so important. We have regular dialogue to make sure their players are getting the best service and I take great pride in having that feedback.

“When we get direct referrals, there’s a framework that is put in place and objective measures that they want us to hit with those players. It could be a certain running distance or a high-speed focus, or it could be for a second opinion around rehab.”

There are plans for the science-driven company to open up a new performance centre in the years ahead to help assist sport locally as well as the European market.

The UAE have a target of qualifying for the World Cup in 2038 and Chris says:  “We want to really be a part of that journey with them and support them with their standards and protocols, because ultimately the kids of today will be players of tomorrow.”

There’s a long way to go but Strategy 2038 is under way. Their FA’s technical centre in Dubai has been improved in recent years, there’s a focus on developing a clear playing style, and with 115 registered academies in the country, producing players should start to become easier. The UAE are currently ranked 70th in the world, having shot up from 130th a decade ago. A slender 2-1 defeat to Australia in the play-offs cost them a shot at qualifying for this World Cup, although as reported earlier this week, the legacy of Qatar’22 will be felt in the neighbouring country as so many football supporters visited for the first time.

A huge marketing push featuring superstars Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar also helps promote football in the region.

Dubai’s biggest supporter from the professional football world is Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema has featured heavily on television adverts.

“There’s nowhere like Dubai,” Benzema, who missed the World Cup with France through injury, said in an interview recently.

It’s a feeling shared by most other footballers who has passed through in recent weeks.

(Top photo: Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)


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