UAE prepare for World Cup qualifying

Matt Jones 11/06/2015
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Focused: Mahdi Ali.

The UAE will look to take advantage of an injury-ravaged South Korea on Thursday as they eye a morale-boosting victory ahead of their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign which begins on Tuesday.

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The Whites play their first game in nearly five months in Kuala Lumpur against South Korea (KO 13:20 UAE time), the friendly against Uli Stielike’s Taeguk Warriors the first of a double-header in Malaysia. The game will serve as a welcome warm-up ahead of their first World Cup qualifier against Timor Leste.

The Whites will take on the Asian Cup finalists at the KLFA Stadium, before starting on the road to what they hope will be only their second World Cup appearance against the Rising Sun in five days’ time. That game against the team ranked 146 in the FIFA rankings, exactly 73 below the 73rd ranked UAE, will be played at Stadium Shah Alam in Selangor, Malaysia, after Timor Leste’s facilities were deemed not up to scratch.

Mahdi Ali’s men have not played since January 30, a 3-2 win over Iraq securing a superb third place at the Asian Cup in Australia.

Ali will be able to call upon the services of Asian Cup heroes Ali Mabkhout, who was top scorer Down Under with five goals, and talisman Omar Abdulrahman. Al Jazira goalkeeper Ali Khaseif and Al Ain centre-back Fares Juma both pulled out because of military service, while Al Ahli goalkeeper Ahmed Dida has withdrawn for personal reasons. 

For Korea, Swansea City’s Ki Sung-yueng could feature, although the midfielder is recovering from surgery on his knee. Seongnam defender Lim Chaimin (foot) and Jeonbuk Motors’ Kim Kee-hee (heel) are also unavailable through injury.

Head coach Stielike must also make do without Mainz’s Koo Ja-cheol, Augsburg’s Ji Dong-won and Wigan Athletic’s Kim Bo-kyung, as the quartet are undergoing military service.

In addition to Timor Leste, the Whites face old foes Saudi Arabia in Group A, as well as Malaysia and Palestine. They will play the latter two, home and away respectively, in a double-header in September.

The games against the Green Falcons are likely to prove key to the UAE’s World Cup prospects, the 

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INSIDE STORY: Agreement with La Liga a big boost for UAE football

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Growth: AGL is attracting big names.

Less than 20 people were there to witness it, but last Thursday marked a potentially historic day in UAE and Spanish football.

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A press conference at the UAE Football Association’s Al Khawaneej headquarters – 25 kilometres outside of Dubai – saw the signature of a “Memorandum of Understanding” between the local Pro League Committee [PLC] and Liga de Futbol Professional [LFP].

Flanked by director general of LFP-Middle East and North Africa Fernando Sanz, PLC CEO Suhail Al Areefi announced an agreement which promised to “build bridges between Arabian Gulf League and La Liga clubs to enable information exchange and cooperation”.

The headline news saw a vow to begin negotiations about bringing leading Spanish teams to the Emirates for high-profile friendly clashes from this December. Also pledged was a trade of ideas on all aspects of the game, including sponsorship and marketing programmes, technical workshops, match organisation, training of match officials, youth tournaments and stadia management.

With professional football in Spain pre-dating La Liga’s 1929 foundation by three years, boasting Real Madrid and Barcelona, broadcasting to an estimated 800 million people globally and providing a steady source of world-class players to the Spanish national team, this should be a bountiful alliance for the UAE.

Yet last week’s event was about so much more, marking a unique moment. Neither party had ever inked such a contract before, consensus coming two years after the LFP’s first permanent foreign office was established in Dubai.

“We are very proud for this agreement, as well as the possibility to create closer ties between these two countries which have the same passion – football,” Sanz said. “That said, we have a lot of work ahead to help each other in football and academy development. I insist the agreement is important for us.

“We believe in this country. We are a very good league, but it is always important to learn from other leagues and countries. The funny thing is La Liga only came to this country two years ago [since settling on a Dubai Airport Free Zone Authority site]. In this time, we made a lot of deals and are very happy.”

This was the latest stage in an ongoing process whereby football’s traditional heartland and one of its main emerging markets formalise an increasingly interdependent relationship.

From Emirates Airline to Etihad Airways, AC Milan to Real Madrid and Abu Dhabi United Group’s transformative 2008 takeover of Premier League side Manchester City, increasing evidence of this partnership can be seen.

UAE connection: Man City.

Flagship sponsorship deals from resource-rich Gulf states and marquee clubs boasting the star names any brand would want to be associated with fuel the strengthening ties.

The UAE is at the forefront of this push, prominent research consultancy Repucom stating in March’s Emerging Giants report companies in the country have been the biggest investor in shirt sponsorships across Europe’s most-prominent leagues since 2005.

In the 2013/14 season alone, Repucom said UAE companies spent a total of €120 million (Dh470.7m) across Spain’s La Liga, the German Bundesliga, the English Premier League, the Dutch Eredivisie, Serie A in Italy and Ligue 1 in France.

This largesse was noted by LFP president Javier Tebas upon the Dubai office opening, stating: “The Freezone provides world class services and facilities that cater to our needs as we act as an intermediary between prospective sponsors and Spanish teams.”

This kind of investment has also gone way beyond the name on a jersey. Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium has borne the airline’s branding since a landmark deal was signed in October 2004, while a new high is expected from Spanish heavyweights Madrid and the Government of Abu Dhabi’s International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC) deal on the redeveloped Santigo Bernabeu’s rights.

Sanz – a former Los Blancos defender whose father Lorenzo was president from 1995 to 2000 – denied the memorandum with the AGL was designed to boost sponsorship, though it is clear exposure in different markets helps potential attraction. 

He said: “This is about how La Liga works in marketing, security in stadiums and all of those things. Commercially? No. This our first such deal with another professional league around the world – for sure, we will try to make more.

“In China, we are developing our brand very fast. We also fix a lot of agreements with local brands in China for shirt sponsorships.

“Now, they discuss Malaga with a guy from China to buy the club. But our intention is not to fight with other leagues, we just want to exchange knowledge.”

Professional football in the UAE is only seven-years-old, the watershed moment coming in 2008/09. Huge strides have been made since, the 14-team top flight attracting players of ever-increasing quality.

Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan has proved a revelation since his 2011 move – initially on loan – from Premier League Sunderland to Al Ain.

Other star names in the 2014/15 AGL included ex-Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic and 2013 Africa Cup of Nations Player of the Tournament Jonathan Pitroipa at Al Jazira, Fujairah’s former Algeria captain Madjid Bougherra and 63-times capped retired Australia midfielder Brett Holman who has recently switched to Emirates Club from Al Nasr.

Clubs are making their mark continentally. Al Ahli have made it consecutive years in which a UAE side has reached the AFC Champions League quarter-finals, defeating bitter rivals Al Ain who made 2014’s last-four.

But teething problems are still apparent despite rapid development, pertinent issues like the filling of grounds and last summer’s transfer farrago with the UAE FA, which saw five deals cancelled after an unauthorised extension of the window. The PLC have not come into this deal blind.

Al Suhail promised work will begin immediately to ensure both parties extract positives from it, as well as revealing other elite competitions have been in contact.

He said: “It is not important when you sign an agreement, it is important how it will work. I have already started with Fernando [Sanz] to make some commitments – Inshallah, we will see him next week to start our agreement.

“We have to see something, but we are like brothers now. We will try to find other leagues – already, we have communicated with the Bundesliga and Premier League. But for now, we are focusing on La Liga. We are happy with them.”

The quality of UAE footballers has improved rapidly under the paternal care of Whites coach Mahdi Ali. Led by Al Ain superstar Omar Abdulrahman, the nation finished an incredible third in January’s Asian Cup.

No Emirati has sealed a permanent move to a prominent European league, though top scorer from the tournament and Al Jazira front man Ali Mabkhout stated last month unnamed La Liga outfits had contacted him.

When asked whether the memorandum could open up this pathway, Sanz replied: “Why not? The UAE finished third in the Asian Cup and their players are improving, day-by-day.

“In my opinion, Abdulrahman can play in a big European league. This agreement can help communication.”

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Emirati Omar Yabroudi celebrates dream job as he joins Forest

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Moving on up: Yabroudi.

Emirati Omar Yabroudi says it’s “a dream come true” after being appointed as the first team performance analyst and technical scout at Nottingham Forest.

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The 25-year-old joins the English Championship club after a three-season stint at Barnet FC as performance analyst and head of recruitment and leaves the London side in League Two after winning promotion last season.

While he enjoyed every moment with the Bees, Yabroudi says it was hard to turn down a job with two-time European champions Nottingham Forest after speaking to coach Dougie Freedman.

The pair first met in 2011 when Yabroudi was head academy performance analyst at Crystal Palace and worked under Freedman.

“It was in February when I was with Barnet that I got a call from Dougie Freedman and he spoke to me about the possibility of joining up with him at Nottingham Forest,” reveals Yabroudi.

“At that time, it was quite difficult for me to leave Barnet as it was the middle of the season and we were also going for promotion. I said to him I would wait until the end of the season and think about it.”

And now Yabroudi cannot hide his delight after seeing the facilities at the club last week.

“There was a real buzz when I travelled to the stadium (City Ground); one that you only get a few times in your life,” he added.

“Nottingham Forest is a club with a rich culture, a great history and it really is a dream come true for me.”

His job responsibilities will include scouting for talent and analysing match videos before relaying the information to the coaching team.

“I have a good knowledge in the international market and will be looking to scout for players who can help Nottingham Forest succeed.”

He added: “Working for Dougie Freedman is a great honour. He has a great stature as a player and coach and we share the same vision and ideas.”

Asked about what he aims to achieve with Forest, Yabroudi said: “The ultimate goal is to help them get promoted to the Premier League. The Championship is very competitive and we will all need to work hard.”

Roped in by then coach Edgar Davids in 2012, Yabroudi’s contribution at Barnet had been widely praised by manager Martin Allen.

Reflecting back on his time with Barnet, Yabroudi said: “My time at Barnet has been a remarkable journey. I’ve been there for three years. It’s been a rollercoaster ride.

“There have been ups and downs with us fighting to avoid relegation and then push for promotion. I’ve enjoyed my time at Barnet.”

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