In the past week, the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Celtic have landed in the UAE for warm-weather training. There will inevitably be more to come in the coming weeks.
Rarely, however, has the talent headed in the other direction.
European clubs are happy to take advantage of the UAE’s reliable weather and impressive training facilities but when it comes to mining young talent, the Gulf state is simply not on their radar.
Seventeen-year-old Andrea Borg provided a potential watershed moment last April. The attacker, born in Dubai and educated at the city’s GEMS Wellington School, made his first-team debut for English League One side Peterborough United.
He followed in the footsteps of goalkeeper Fabian Spiess, who played a handful of games during five years at Notts County between 2010 and 2015 after moving from the UAE.
They are the exception not the rule so far, but this could be about to change.
Three months ago, a new youth academy launched in Dubai with lofty ambitions. City Football Club Dubai is promising genuine pathways to professional football in the UK, or collegiate soccer in the US.
Terry Kidd, a former professional footballer for Scottish side Aberdeen, is City FC’s director of football. He believes the newly formed club can provide the missing link between Dubai’s aspiring players and a future career in the sport.
“It’s all about setting our players on a long-term trajectory,” Kidd tells Arab News. “This is football as an objective, not just an activity.
“The appetite was there in the UAE for a high-performance academy that has the look and feel of a professional club and we’ve responded to that demand.”
Like professional academies in Europe, players on the elite program — from U-8s to U-18s — attend five sessions a week. They have access to innovative training technology, and regularly receive bespoke video and text analysis packages.
“This sports science approach isn’t about gimmicks,” Kidd explained. “We want players to engage with their performance. We are breeding an elite environment.
“Our coaches and staff have worked at professional clubs and have the dressing room experience, the understanding and appreciation of the small margins that make a difference.”
Football academies are big business in the UAE, with the likes of Barcelona, Juventus and Arsenal among those to offer “Soccer School” experiences to expatriate and Emirati youngsters alike.
It is a lucrative, but saturated, market and those able to trade on the name of a professional parent club unquestionably have an advantage.
But while these programs are designed primarily to build revenues, Kidd insisted City Football Club — no relation to the Premier League leaders — are dedicated to unearthing Dubai diamonds.
“Club-affiliated academies are run in a very black and white manner; they are commercial driven businesses that are all about attracting numbers.
“Our model is about identifying and nurturing talent. Our infrastructure and network is setting these players up for a clear future in the game. If a player leaves us at 14 to go to an English club, we will view that as a major success.”
In April, City FC will test themselves against the best. A UK tour will see the club compete in the Manchester International Super Cup against a host of professional academies.
The piece de resistance, though, is a trip to Manchester United’s Carrington training ground to face the Red Devils’ youth teams.
It represents a fantastic opportunity for City FC’s players but it will not be the first time they have taken on professional clubs. UAE sides Al-Wahda, Al-Jazira, Al-Shaab and Al-Nasr have already been opponents and City FC have enjoyed plenty of successes.
The competitive nature of these fixtures has given Kidd confidence that phase two of the City FC plan — to turn professional and compete in the Arabian Gulf League — is not just a pipe dream.
“The long-term goal is very much to play in the UAE professional divisions,” Kidd says. “But first we need to get a stable infrastructure in place and build the brand, the recognition of City FC.
“After the merger of Al-Ahli, Al-Shabab and Dubai Club last year, we know that the UAE FA don’t want more clubs folding. They want new clubs and we certainly have the desire to be one.
“For now, though, we are a great sparring partner for the AGL clubs — we bring a competitive, high-intensity football that challenges their players. The clubs like that and for us it’s a fantastic development tool.”
City FC Dubai is still in its infancy but at a time when rumors of further club closures in the AGL are rife, it is heartening to see a new door opening in UAE football.