Over the past couple of years, more and more Egyptian footballers have been popping up in Portugal’s Primeira Liga. For a country that doesn’t necessarily boast scores of players plying their craft at European clubs, 12 Egyptians in Portugal’s top-flight can hardly go unnoticed.
You see young defender Ramy Rabia at Sporting Lisbon, midfielders Saleh Gomaa and Ali Ghazal at Nacional Madeira, striker Marwan Mohsen at Gil Vicente and many more who have come and gone over the last two seasons.
With all these Pharaohs flocking to Portugal, you would assume there is a lot of money involved and that the agent handling those transfer deals must be thriving.
When thinking of the words ‘Portugal’ and ‘football agent’, Jorge Mendes – along with millions of Euros – quickly comes to mind. The Portuguese super-agent, who represents Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho, is predictably the first result on Google when you search for those terms.
But in that very same league where Mendes has collected millions to build a career, Egyptians as well as their representatives are making peanuts in comparison.
Abdulrahman Magdy is an agent who has been involved in numerous transfers that sent players from Egypt to Portugal, including Gomaa’s loan deal from ENPPI to Nacional (who paid ENPPI a mere $100,000) and Shikabala’s deadline day signing with Sporting.
Magdy, who used to be the press officer for the Egyptian national team during the Bob Bradley-era and also hosted several football shows on TV, explains how most of the players who move from the Egyptian Premier League to Portugal actually make less money than they were making back home.
Still, that hasn’t stopped them from going abroad – a decision that is a glaring distinction from that made by players in other Arab countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia or Iraq, who prefer to stay at home, making large sums in lesser leagues, compared to Europe.
For an Egyptian to move to Portugal, he would often leave behind his superstar status, sacrifice a significant amount of his salary and choose to be away from his family and friends.
According to Magdy, one player is making EGP400,000 (Dh192,000) a year in Portugal, but would be making six times that figure should he play in Egypt.
“It’s still not easy to convince Egyptian players to go to Europe and accept a lower salary,” Magdy told Sport360°.
“Despite all the turmoil and political problems in Egypt, there is still money in football. There are players in Egypt who make EGP 5 million a year, that’s equivalent to €50,000 (Dh200,000) a week. In the entire Portuguese league, there’s only like two clubs who can afford to offer that salary.
“For GCC nationals, in my opinion, none of them will play abroad. Iraqis as well. I’ve been with the Iraq national team and their Olympic team in the past few weeks and they have talent. No player in the league in Iraq, who plays for the national team, makes less than $150,000 a year. So where can I tell a player like that to go?
“If he goes to Europe he’ll make way less. The only way for a player like that to go to Europe is for him to have a true ambition to play at a big club like Manchester United. Or a dream of playing in Serie A.
“He needs to have a specific goal and believe that he needs to start somewhere. But if he’s a player who is calculating how much he’ll be making, then there’s no way. They think ‘I’m at home in Iraq and living amongst my family and friends, why would I go abroad?’
Mohamed Ibrahim almost confirmed at Marítimo. It means that 10 Egyptians will play in Portugal this season. 5th in the nationalities count!
— Alexandre Queirós (@alexqueiros) August 17, 2014
“Saleh Gomaa is an example of an ambitious player. He had a big contract in Egypt. In his first year with Nacional, he was making less. Then in the second year, his salary matched what he was making in Egypt, he didn’t make more.
“But when he asks himself ‘why would I leave my country and live abroad?’ he thinks, ‘I want to make something of myself, I want to play for a big European club and I have endless ambition’. That’s the only answer that works.”
The football mentality in the UAE, according to Magdy, is not based on that kind of ambition. He says: “In the UAE, I once had a bizarre case.
“A goalkeeper’s contract had ended. Someone called me, asking me to send him to Portugal for six months. It would be a free transfer and he doesn’t care how much he’ll be making and, six months later, a UAE club will buy him from that Portuguese club.
“I was like ‘what’s the point?’ He told me that would be the first UAE keeper to play professional football in Europe. So look at the mentality. It’s so tough to find someone who has the talent and also has the right mentality. To forgo all the money he’s making in a place like the UAE is difficult.”
The reason Portuguese clubs have been more welcoming to Egyptian players than other European leagues is there is no quota for the number of foreign players a club can sign, unlike Serie A, where clubs can only sign one non-EU player a year, which makes Ahmed Hegazy’s move to Fiorentina in 2012 all the more remarkable.
Magdy states that the first transfer from Egypt to Europe typically involves a low figure. But it is the second move within Europe that would bring in lots of money, something he’ll be hoping to achieve this summer when Gomaa’s contract expires. Magdy has formed a partnership agreement with Soccer Soul to handle the midfielder’s next move.
“I’d say it’s very rare to find a club that is ready to pay a decent sum for a player from the Middle East in general,” says Magdy.
“The level of football is obviously much lower than Europe, the success of the player is not guaranteed at all… many reasons. The mentality is always questionable. The big clubs would only start paying good money for an Egyptian after the player has proven himself in Europe.
“There are exceptions of course like Mohamed Salah who went from Arab Contractors to Basel for €1.5m (Dh6m) after he excelled in the FIFA U-20 World Cup and the London Olympics. Ahmed Hegazy also went to Fiorentina from Ismaily for €1.5m but he also had done really well for Egypt. Those two were rare cases.”
Magdy believes Salah has managed to change the reputation and perception of Egyptian footballers in Europe. The prolific winger, currently at Fiorentina on loan from Chelsea, has been a terrific example of a hard-working player from Egypt and has seven goals and two assists for La Viola in 12 appearances.
“Clubs are still wary, of course. They have some specific questions before signing an Egyptian. I get asked sometimes ‘where is this player from in Egypt?’. Nacional told me they don’t want anyone from Cairo, ‘we prefer someone hungry for football and not someone who was a superstar back in Egypt and someone who feels he’s making a sacrifice by coming to Portugal’.
“But I believe that the block towards Egyptians has vanished. Even Sporting, who had a terrible experience with Shikabala, they’re still scouting Egyptians.”
One of the challenges Magdy is facing is how agents are perceived in Egypt.
“The reputation of the job itself, being an agent, is terrible. So it’s tough to gain someone’s trust. There are probably a handful of agents in Egypt – and I’d like to consider myself one of them – who don’t fall under the category of the greedy, cut-throat, exploitative agents,” he adds.
“Commission for the agent is 10 per cent of the player’s contract value. There are agents who make more but those are not respectable people. They exploit the ignorance or need of a player and sometimes, in cases with African players, can take up to 50 per cent.”
To get an idea of Zayed Sports City’s place in the UAE community, all you have to do is look at the local currency.
The back of the Dh200 bank note depicts an image of the UAE Central Bank, which issued the note in 1989, well after the first dirham went into circulation in 1973. On the front is an illustration of the Sharia Court building and the instantly-recognisable outer shell of Zayed Sports City Stadium.
Named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s founding father and first president, Zayed Sports City is the nation’s premier sporting facility for hosting both international and regional activities and events.
The Abu Dhabi landmark has stood since 1980 and been an integral part of the UAE sporting scene since its opening, but it has reached new heights in the last half decade thanks to Abu Dhabi Entertainment Company, which took over operations in 2010.
Barry Bremner, general manager of Zayed Sports City and Abu Dhabi Entertainment Company’s first employee, has been part of getting the most out of the venue.
“Zayed Sports City, in terms of the first main building, was built 35 years ago. That was part of Sheikh Zayed’s vision to have the youth of the UAE participate in sport. When we took over as the current company, which is Abu Dhabi Entertainment Company, we had around 400,000 people using the facilities in 2010 and they did roughly six events.
“We’ve worked very hard over the last five years and this year we did 1.6 million, in terms of people participating in the 188 events and sports within the facility,” Bremner told Sport360.
“We haven’t actually built any new facilities. We’ve tweaked and added some pitches and added paintball, but we’ve not actually built a large new facility. All we’ve taken is what was there and helped activate it. Simple as that.”
Originally constructed as an Oly-mpic complex, Zayed Sports City has a number of facilities to cater to different sports.
The ice rink (originally called Abu Dhabi Ice Rink) opened in 1987, the Khalifa International Bowling Centre opened in 1998, the International Tennis Centre opened in 2005, while paintball was introduced earlier this year.
With so much to offer in terms of facilities and range of activities, it’s no wonder what Bremner considers Zayed Sports City’s biggest strength to be for attracting residents.
“I think it’s the diversity of the customer base that we’ve got,” he said.
“Within the ice rink, for example, we have a lot of Emiratis. Within bowling, we have lots of Filipinos. You get on the pitches, we’ve got a mix of international people playing football. We’ve got kids, we’ve got adults, we’ve got high numbers of Emiratis. In rugby, we have a lot of expats.
“So it’s actually the diversity of what we do. When you look at the diversity of the city itself, it sort of matches. The sports we have are actually quite complimentary to the community within Abu Dhabi.
“Obviously the UAE and specifically Abu Dhabi has grown in terms of its population. At the same time, our competition has grown. So it’s not just other facilities we’re competing against, it’s for people’s time. Do people choose to go to the mall, do they go to another sports facility? I would say we’ve been quite successful in that we’ve actually probably activated more than other facilities within the UAE.”
“Some of it is around price point. We don’t see ourselves as an exclusive club. The cheapest thing you can do on site is bowling, which is Dh15 per game, all the way up to having private tennis lessons. There’s a whole diversity and range of programmes.
“You can come and walk for free at night. People run, rollerblade and cycle around the stadium, which is all for free. So we’re very inclusive in the way we encourage people to the site.”
Attracting individuals in the UAE community is one thing, but drawing the interest of events – whether they carry worldwide or local appeal – is another challenge in itself.
On the international end, Zayed Sports City has hosted renowned events such as the FIFA Club World Cup in 2010 and WWE Live just recently in February.
In 2015, more international football has been brought over to the nation’s capital, with friendlies of Ivory Coast v Nigeria, Ivory Coast v Sweden and Sweden v Finland taking place earlier this year, while a match-up between Colombia and Kuwait will be played tonight.
“Behind the scenes, we’ve actually spent a lot of time attracting those big events to Zayed Sports City,” Bremner said.
“Part of it is around the facilities we have on offer. If you want an event for 43,000 people, we can host it at the Stadium. The Tennis Centre quite nicely holds up to 6,000 if you use the floor. So we’ve got a diverse range of hosting capability.
“But actually the strength is in the team that we employ. When clients sit with our events managers, customer service managers, the operations team, they realise they’re dealing with a very professional team at Zayed Sports City. We always like to think customer service is at the forefront of everything that we do. As a client, when you come here, we make sure we have all the answers here waiting for you.”
But while Zayed Sports City benefits from drawing eyes from across the world, the venue’s bread and butter is its ability to host regional events.
Whether it’s the UAE’s largest amateur tennis tournament in the Abu Dhabi Wilson Tennis Cup, or something catering to families like the OMO Carnival, Zayed Sports City have become the go-to location not only in Abu Dhabi, but in the country.
“In Abu Dhabi, we found Zayed Sports City to be the perfect location for the OMO Carnival, as the team at Zayed Sports City is an expert at running family and community activities throughout the year,” said Waqas Javed, market director for foods, refreshments & home care for Unilever Gulf.
“It sure has been a great privilege working directly with Zayed Sports City team and partnering with them to host the first OMO Carnival in Abu Dhabi.”
Just five years into his stay at Zayed Sports City, Bremner and his team have helped take the venue to new heights. Five years from now, more should only be on the way.
“We’re never done,” Bremner said.
“I actually think that you’ll see a lot of facilities revitalised. You’ll see different types of events coming here. I believe that our team will start to expand.
“I think you’ll see a period of growth for Abu Dhabi Entertainment Company, not necessarily just at Zayed Sports City. We may actually look to expand in other facilities within the UAE.”
Driving down Al Wasl road in Dubai, a flashy block of stores designed as colourful cargo containers can be spotted just past Safa Park.
That stretch of shops and restaurants is called Box Park and towards the end of it, a new cycling store called Liv can be found. Liv is the Middle East’s first ever female-specific cycling store and was founded by Bonnie Tu, a woman often referred to as the ‘Godmother of Cycling’.
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As the chief financial officer (CFO) – and founder investor alongside chairman King Liu – of Giant Bicycles, Tu created Liv in 2007 after realising how underserved women were when it came to cycling.
As a teenager, Tu would commute from her home to school on her bike, riding the 10km distance every day. Over 30 years later, she got reacquainted with the sport when she decided to join King in his attempt to compete in the Tour of Taiwan.
Before taking on that challenge, Tu went on a quest to find an outfit to wear during the race but she found that finding female-specific apparel for cyclists was not an easy task. She didn’t finish the Tour of Taiwan, but at the age of 57, she still managed to complete 900km over 15 days.
Tu has since called herself as a “reborn cyclist”. That experience reignited her passion for the sport and she began learning how to switch gears and climb hills. Her toughest challenge to date was riding up to the highest peak in Taiwan, some 3,625km, three years ago.
While she admits she wouldn’t want to put herself through that again, her dedication to getting more women to take up cycling has got stronger and stronger and it all started with her creating Liv following her Tour of Taiwan adventure eight years ago.
Liv’s mission is to provide female-specific bikes, gear and apparel in a welcoming retail environment with the purpose of making cycling more approachable and appealing so that it can become a mainstream sport and fitness activity among women.
Tu, pictured right, has opened Liv stores in eight different cities and there are more than 2,000 retailers that sell her products. The store at Box Park in Dubai is the first in the Middle East and Tu believes the emirate is a perfect fit for her brand.
Every cyclist will have a range of bicycles available at Dubai’s Liv store including entry-level road, mountain and commuter bikes and high-end offerings. With the brand entirely managed by women, including bicycle engineers, gear designers and retail specialists, the Liv experience is something that has expanded rapidly.
“Dubai is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city, with lots of expatriates and locals. They have all sorts of levels of riding and I think this will be a hot spot for cyclists,” Tu told Sport360 following the launch of her new store.
“I think Dubai is full of very savvy shoppers. So they know what is right and good because Dubai has everything. A brand with good value, they can identify that immediately.”
Liv started off as a brand linked to Giant, but last year Tu took her project from being Liv/Giant to just Liv and she feels it was the right call.
“When we started it was called Liv/Giant. And now after almost eight years, I think the market is mature enough to accept a standalone women’s brand. So I became independent in 2014 and split from Giant and it’s only Liv now,” she explains. “All women are entitled to independence, and so is Liv.”
While Dubai is becoming a hotbed for cycling with the development of track and paths dedicated to riders like the Al Qudra Cycle Path and the Nad Al Sheba Cycle Park, bringing a women-specific brand to the Middle East was definitely a bold move, considering the cultural barriers many ladies face in this part of the world that could discourage them from getting on a bike here. But Tu has her reasons for venturing into this territory.
“Actually it encouraged me because one of our missions is to try to make cycling a mainstream sport for women. So this will be a very ideal location for Liv,” she says. “I want to really work with locals to develop apparel for Muslim women.
“I need the support from the locals, because I don’t really understand what are the limitations. So I need locals to tell me what direction I should go in.”
Wherever she goes, Tu makes sure she engages with the community. Like most cycling stores here, Liv organise weekly community rides to foster the culture of riding.
Liv are current sponsors of the UAE National Cycling Women’s Team, providing them – through their local agent Dubai Desert Extreme (DDE) – with both bikes, gear and apparel.
They also have been supporting Afghanistan’s first-ever national women’s team, a group of ladies who have claimed their right to cycle despite it being forbidden for years, thanks to the help of Mountain2Mountain – a non-profit organisation which Tu has chosen to give a hand by supplying bikes and outfits.
“It means a lot to me especially for the local women to take up cycling. That would be very rewarding and challenging to Liv,” Tu said of her hopes for the UAE. “Females were under-served in the cycling industry so I think I’m senior enough in this industry to start this project and to serve females with what they are entitled to.
“All women are welcome, I don’t have any specific type of consumer. We are trying to cater for all levels of female cyclists.
“Whether you are a beginner or a top-end rider. I want cycling to be a well-accepted sport in this region.
“This is one of the most challenging regions for us and it is a place where I really want to cultivate the brand.”
A recent study conducted by Dubai Sports Council showed that 73 per cent of people in the northern emirate choose cycling as their preferred activity of choice. While it is unclear how many of those are women, Abdulla Suwaidan, the team manager of the UAE Cycling Federation squads, believes more and more females are taking up the sport in the country.
“It was a smart choice for Liv to open up this store here in Dubai because the UAE is starting to really embrace the idea of females on bikes,” said Suwaidan.
“A huge portion of the population, both expats and locals will be interested in paying a visit to that store.
“Today we have a women’s national team consisting of 10 cyclists – two of which (Fatma Mohamed and Maha Salem) have clinched silver medals at the last Arab Championships, beating out countries like Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Iraq, all who have a much longer tradition in cycling.
“In the Nad Al Sheba race last Ramadan, there were 32 Emirati women taking part in the amateur race.
“This is a clear indication of how widespread the sport is becoming amongst the female population.
“None of this would have happened without the support of the government who have built all these cycle paths and tracks around the city."