UAE-based Juventus Academy show grit rather than gold is what helps aspiring young stars

Matt Jones - Editor 17:02 17/06/2019
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They may not have come close to being crowned champions of the second-ever Juventus Academy World Cup, but that’s not really what the tournament is about for the passionate and dedicated coaches at the Italian giants’ UAE-based academies.

The 31 players and four coaches of the three teams looked resplendent bedecked in the famous Bianconeri black and white throughout the three-day tournament, hosted last week in several towns and villages buried in the idyllic northwest Italian countryside surrounding Turin.

Each player has their own playing kit, tracksuit and rain jacket as part of their Juventus Academy membership. They even possess a set of thermals for the cruder European weather which welcomed them from sunnier Middle Eastern climes.

Everything they and their coaches wear is emblazoned with the famous Juve badge, as is everything adorned by the players and coaches of every other team descending on northern Italy for the Juventus Academy World Cup.

Games are played on pristine pitches, in the picturesque settings of Bardonecchia, Bussoleno, Susa and Oulz. Each settlement is situated along the sprawling European route E70 that stretches from Spain in the west through 10 different countries, before terminating in Georgia in the east.

These gorgeous, quaint venues are nestled deep in the heart of the stunning, snow-capped Italian Alps. Everything about the trip looks crisp and gorgeous.

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But even in this brand-obsessed modern world in which they try and teach the traditional concepts of Juventus football, and with their students afforded the luxury and splendor that is so alien to the many other kids growing up beyond the UAE’s golden glow, nothing, not even currency, outweighs the values of football tradition to the Juventus Academy coaches.

“Our philosophy is also to teach the kids how to lose the game. Football is not just about winning. Sometimes you lose, sometimes win, and it’s really important the behaviour, teaching them,” said Mirco Steffenino, coach of the Abu Dhabi Under-10s (2008/09) team.

“Football is like life, full of rules, respect, so this is what we expect from the kids.”

Juventus’ Abu Dhabi project is very much in the embryonic stages. While the Italian giants opened their Dubai academy in September 2014, the one in the capital began only in January last year. Many players had not even kicked a football prior to this, their first season, so two wins from six games on their tournament debut, was something to shout about.

“For the first year it’s good, because the level of the tournament is really high,” added Steffenino.

“We only started a year ago and at the beginning they didn’t know how to play football. So now we are a team, we work hard, the players, the coaches, everyone.

“For them it was an amazing opportunity to meet friends, there were 1,000 kids there. It’s the first time they go together out of the country. It was a new experience for them and something they will remember for the rest of their lives.”

Much like the confines in which it was played, the tournament boasted a rich tapestry of nationalities and languages, with academies from 28 countries competing. Juventus has a presence in 60 different locations around the globe – with the three sides making the 6,000 kilometre, six-hour flight from the UAE not even close to the furthest travellers.

The Juve youngsters with their coaches at Dubai International Airport.

The Juve youngsters with their coaches at Dubai International Airport.

Teams traipsed all the way from Australia, Guatemala, Canada, Chile, the United States and China to take part in a competition that involved more than 1,000 players and 2,500 staff.

The tournament’s multicultural aspect is something the UAE academies truly embrace. There were 28 different nations competing over the three days. Across the three UAE teams, 18 separate countries were represented.

One player who perhaps typifies the colourful make-up of the Emirates’ expatriate-heavy community more than any other is Almas Elayyan. A Sharjah-born American with a Palestinian father, who lives in Colorado with her mother, but spends her summers in Dubai visiting her dad, and who could pick between the US, Jordan and UAE to represent at national team level.

The 11-year-old is also the only girl among the 31-strong UAE contingent. But any male opponents who might have singled her out as a soft target ahead of kick-off would have received a rude awakening.

The no-nonsense midfielder is as tough as old boots and more than adept at holding her own – she even got a yellow card during a 6-1 thrashing of English opponents Academy Sussex during a group stage encounter on day one.

Playing with the boys is certainly more challenging, but more rewarding too. “It’s tough but it helps me learn more. I don’t get to learn much playing with girls, it’s a bit too easy,” said Elayyan, her hushed tones masking a tenacious spirit on the field.

Elayyan discovered the Juventus Academy last summer while on vacation, ecstatic to counteract the usual boredom associated with the punishingly hot UAE summers.

And she impressed coaches instantly. Area head coach Nicola Carofiglio, a midfield product of Sampdoria’s youth system and former Italy Under-17 international, was so in awe he invited her to become part of his Dubai U-12’s team travelling to Turin to take part in the 2019 Juventus Academy World Cup.

“I come to Dubai every summer and I want to play soccer while I’m here,” she added.

“My mom found out about the academy last summer and I did some sessions, and then coach Nicola invited me to come to Italy. I said yes.

“It was a really neat experience. I got to learn a lot playing and bringing that back to the US will hopefully help my club change a little too.

“It’s very different in the US and with Juventus. The speed of play is very fast and back home it’s kinda slow. It’s a high standard here and the skill levels are way higher. I got used to it being easy (back home) and didn’t rely on my team-mates that much.”

It’s not just in the UAE where she is courting attention. Back home she is part of the US Olympic development programme, having been selected following try-outs last year. And whereas, for now, she hopes to return to Italy with Dubai for next summer’s tournament, she also hopes a career as a footballer may also be a legitimate one – she has already had international offers from Jordan and the UAE.

“I’ll probably play another World Cup with Juventus next summer, maybe. I’ve played one so the short term goal is to come back,” she added.

“I want to play for the national team one day, maybe Jordan or the UAE. I haven’t decided yet, but I got invites from both. Jordan through my dad and the UAE because I’m born here.

“The US women’s team right now are very strong so I’ll consider playing for the US too, but I’m just taking it slow for now.”

Elayyan’s Dubai team won two of their five games as they came up against tough opponents from Serbia and Russia in the knockout stages. Dubai’s junior team fared the best across the tournament, winning three and losing only two of their clashes.

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Poland’s Academy Torun White thrashed defending champions Academy Tunisia 4-0 in a dominant performance in the U-12’s final, while Academy Romania Black overcame an early 1-0 deficit to beat Belgian’s Academy Belux 5-2 in the U-10’s final.

The prestige associated with the Juventus Academy World Cup and subsequent Juventus Training Experience (where players again travel to Italy and live and train like professionals) is something that sets Juventus Academy apart from the myriad other football development programmes – of which there are many – in the UAE.

“It’s difficult. The market’s tough. Dubai has more than 50 academies so it’s a huge number,” said Mohammed Lajam, chairman of FFG Sports Management, the official Juventus operating partner in the UAE.

“But we’re doing well, people trust the project and the coaches.

“Four years ago we started with three coaches and now we have 45. We have 10 locations and are expanding. We have a lot of children joining from other academies.”

“What’s different with Juventus from other brands is Juventus has their hands on the project from day to day operations. Even for the daily training the coaches have to upload their sessions to an online portal which has to be approved by HQ.”

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