Take extremely talented kids in the UAE, get them working with top-of-the-range coaches in state-of-the-art facilities, and then give them the chance-of-a-lifetime scouting camp in Spain – that’s the process behind du LaLiga High Performance Centre.
Based on the sun-kissed south coast in Puerto Banus, near Marbella, the band of 33 prospects are hoping that LaLiga sides will take a shine to their skills.
The objective of the three-week tour is to secure as many trials as possible for the teenagers, who hail from Bolivia, South Africa and almost everywhere in between but all call the Emirates their home.
They have already registered successes over Cadiz, and most notably LaLiga heavyweights Sevilla – both Under-18 and Under-16 sides put a club that developed Real Madrid and Spain star Sergio Ramos to the sword.
It was quite a time to perform as a Barcelona scout was present on the day, while one player already has a post-tour trial lined up for Cadiz after impressing against the second division side.
The initial success is indicative of just how far UAE grassroots football has come – from there not even being a nationwide, or even an Emirate-wide, teenage football competition of note from the establishment of the National School League and now du potentially placing a youngster at La Masia
The news too is music to the ears of Hussein Murad, the president of sports marketing company Inspiratus and mastermind behind the du LaLiga HPC concept.
“The idea started through the experiences of my kids – my daughter is a goalkeeper and my son also plays,” Murad explains. “There was nothing to do at the weekend, no official football.
“So we started in 2013 and came up with the Dubai Schools Cup to create an official tournament for schools or for youth. It was a huge success because they were starving for it, there was nothing, ‘thank you for coming up with an idea like that’.
“We also learned something from the first two years though. Whoever reaches 16 years old couldn’t participate any more, there was nothing for them to progress. And we did a study –after 15 years old, more than 70 per cent of kids leave sports and especially football.”
From that realisation the scouting platform was born, taking the very best kids who participated in the UAE Schools Cup and a new UAE Streets Cup and opening the kind of doors that barely seemed fathomable a short while ago.
Murad first got lead sponsor du on board and with the resources secured to give the kids the best possible chance, LaLiga stepped in to provide the Spanish flair.
On their recommendation UEFA Pro-licenced coaches in Rafael Gil – one-time head coach of Malaga – and his prodigy Enrique Gonzalez were installed full-time in Dubai, where The Sevens Stadium is available to du LaLiga HPC 11 months a year.
LaLiga have also ensured access to two pristine pitches a day at Marbella Football Centre, a venue so well-regarded that the likes of Bayern Munich have used the facilities in the past.
“We wanted the best for the programme because LaLiga is the best league in the world,” says former Real Madrid and Malaga defender Fernando Sanz, now LaLiga’s managing director for the Middle East and North Africa. “We have the best players, coaches and we sent them to Dubai like Rafa, who coached in the first division.
“It’s not just for them to play in LaLiga – any professional league we are happy to develop these kids. Dubai has a lot of people from the other part of the world, and you see this with the players on this tour. Our league is global as well so it makes sense for us.”
All this and the kids don’t even pay a penny. So where’s the catch?
Ultimately, nothing comes for free in this world but as it turns out, du LaLiga HPC is a rather small price to pay. The players have all signed an agreement whereby the company essentially represents them in their future careers.
Part of that may manifest in sell-on fees should their first club go on to sell them, though Murad insists that in many cases education comes first rather than trying to sell each player a pipedream.
“Many of the kids don’t want to go professional at 18, they want to study,” he adds. “That’s why we have 60 colleges in the US that gives them a full scholarship if they are very good academically.
“There’s nothing in it for us, it actually costs us money to send him there back and forth. But you take him to continue his football at a high level while he’s earning a degree.
“So really, we are changing their lives. We aren’t really thinking about making money out of professional kids, because this is really like hitting the jackpot.
“They are very good kids and they have gratitude too – but I’m not just betting on people making it big time.”
Adham Bayoumi is one player whose brains match his football skills – the 15-year-old is launching his own fashion line, Finesse Dubai, next month and recently took an entrepreneur course at Brown University.
“I have high hopes to become a professional, and my dream is to be playing in a top team – a team in the top five leagues in Europe,” said the attacker.
“If that doesn’t work out, we have different universities in mind like Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford if I’m crazy smart.
“They are all very creative universities and a lot of start-ups start there. We say if I can’t play professional football, why not buy a professional club when I’m older!”
Ahmed El Yamani is one football success story already, with the 16-year-old Palestinian midfielder wanted by Malaga, Villareal and Valencia on a full-time basis when he turns 18.
The La Liga Academy also launches in the UAE next month, further opening the pathways for would-be professionals.
“I wasn’t expecting this growth – it is a movement,” admits Murad. It remains to be seen whether any players from this year’s crop will be making the permanent move to Spain.
While all eyes will be on Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on August 26 for the richest fight in history, there’s one person on the bill for whom this is no gimmick.
For Savannah Marshall, there will be focus amid the folly, hope rather than hype as she begins her journey as a professional and part of an exciting new era in women’s boxing. Having signed a four-year deal with Mayweather Promotions, it will be a significant step in the career of the 26-year-old former amateur world champion.
So too for female fighters the world over as it is showcased to an expected global audience of millions, eager to see Mayweather don the gloves once more for the bout with UFC hero McGregor.
“I still can’t believe it and it won’t hit me until I’m there,” Marshall tells Sport360°. “Part of the Money Team, me? On the bill of the Mayweather-McGregor fight, how amazing is that?
“When they said they wanted to sign me and I thought ‘Oh my God’. It’s what dreams are made of. And it shows how women’s boxing is becoming bigger.”
It has long been an untapped market, a fact not lost on Mayweather as he builds his promotion empire following retirement, also signing American junior middleweight LaTondria Jones.
Rival promoters, such as Lou DiBella, Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy team and British pair Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren have also snapped up the best female talent as television companies have shown greater interest following the success of women in MMA and UFC. With respect, there is now the potential for profit.
It has been a long time coming after past barriers. With its origins dating back to 1720, women’s boxing was a displayed event at the 1904 St Louis Olympics, but only the men competed.
It was banned in Britain in 1880 and there were mainly exhibitions until the 1970s when several US states allowed women to box and approved bouts with more than four rounds.
There were more battles out of the ring amid the struggle for acceptance as well as recognition and reward, until 1996 when Christy Martin took on Deirdre Gogarty on the undercard of Mike Tyson’s WBC heavyweight title fight with Frank Bruno in Las Vegas.
Bloody and brutal, the featherweight clash defied stereotypes and gender bias and women’s professional boxing was formally accepted in the States.
Martin, though, did not want to be the flag-bearer of the sport that Barbara Buttrick – the first woman to fight on national television in 1954 – once was. But others were willing to push the sport forward, including German Regina Halmich, who gave up her job as a lawyer’s clerk to fight and grow its popularity in Europe, along with Dutch legend Lucia Rijker.
So too Mia St John and the daughters of icons Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Laila Ali and Jackie Frazier-Lyde, who showed ability as well as ambition. Allowing women’s boxing into the 2012 Olympics proved a momentous occasion, helping to generate global interest, encouraging activity among the youth, spawning heroes – like Indian Mary Kom who won a bronze medal – and new superstars such as Claressa Shields.
“The Olympics definitely helped show the talent, didn’t half give women’s boxing a boost,” says Marshall. “I think even more girls are going to come through because of that and what’s going on now.”
American Shields made history with gold in 2012 and 2016. Beaten just once as an amateur, by Marshall of all people, the 22-year-old – known as T-Rex – turned professional last November and is tipped to transform the female fight scene with more monstrous displays after claiming the IBF and WBC super-middleweight title from German Nikki Adler with a fifth-round stoppage last Saturday.
It was top billing as part of the ShoBox series and in only her second professional fight in March, Shields became the first woman to headline a premium cable boxing card when she beat Szilvia Szabados in Detroit on the Showtime channel. Texan Marlen Esparza then became the first woman to appear on a televised portion of an ESPN boxing card and has been signed by De La Hoya, who is also trying to add Shields to his stable.
Heather Hardy, 35, has been another influential figure, considered revolutionary, as she signed a long-term deal with DiBella Entertainment and has the opportunity to compete in MMA as well. WBO featherweight champion Amanda Serrano and Shelly Vincent are also on DiBella’s books and he has hailed them as “trail blazers”.
Across the pond, Olympic gold medallist Katie Taylor turned pro with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing stable after a 13-year amateur career, while Britain’s two-time Olympian Nicola Adams is under the banner of Frank Warren Promotions and working with Andre Ward’s trainer Virgil Hunter.
There has clearly been talent, but television has always been integral to any major success as DiBella has claimed: “While male fighters are going after the $50,000, $150,000 or $1 million payday, those don’t exist for women because television has been closed to them.”
But with Showtime involved in the US and even talk of an all-fem-ale bill, that could soon change.
Fast and furious
Trainer Peter Fury, who has been working with Marshall while handling the affairs of heavyweights Tyson and Hughie Fury, says: “They’ve all realised there’s a market there and there’s money to be made. With television interested, it will get there and will be as big as men’s boxing, I believe that. Within 5-10 years, that timeframe.
“There’s exciting fights out there, with the strong Americans and you only have to get a Savannah and a world champion in her class, have a humdinger fight and that’s it.
“It ain’t women’s boxing or men’s boxing, it’s just boxing. That’s what I’ve been saying to Savannah to help her compete professionally.
“She’s 6ft, 75 kilos and I’ve got her sparring with middleweights, men, and she is putting back their noses and giving as good as she has got. Fans will love that.”
Perhaps for many, the experience of women in boxing was previously limited to movies, such as Clint Eastwood-directed Hollywood movie ‘Million Dollar Baby’.
They’ve been likened to the Galacticos era at Spanish football giants Real Madrid. Then again, they’ve also been chastised for ruining the game, buying titles by bringing in an army of mercenaries.
Whatever your view regarding Toulon’s impact on rugby, you can’t deny it’s been exciting under the headline-grabbing guidance of Mourad Boudjellal. Jonny Wilkinson, Bryan Habana and Sonny Bill Williams have all donned the red jersey and helped draw the crowds to the blue collar naval town on France’s south east coast.
The club’s Stade Mayol ground is surrounded by high-rise tenement flats. It’s not exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find some of the northern and southern hemisphere’s premier players from the last decade plying their trade.
Club president Boudjellal is even more colourful than the comic books his former firm Soleil Productions is famed for publishing. The son of Algerian immigrants, Boudjellal initially invested in his hometown club along with Stephane Lelievre in 2006, plotting a bold mission to assemble a hoard of superheroes Marvel would be proud to call their own. He’s certainly achieved that.
The likes of Ma’a Nonu, Tana Umaga, James O’Connor, Quade Cooper, Duane Vermeulen, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Leigh Halfpenny are just some of the names to have arrived since – helping Toulon to claim three straight European Cup crowns from 2013-15 – yet some critics would have Boudjellal painted as the arch villain rather than a caped crusader.
Two of his former recruits, however, can’t speak highly enough of the Professor Xavier-type leader who made it his mission to put together an all-star cast.
Boudjellal helped line the pockets of Carl Hayman and Tom May, but undoubtedly also helped enrich the tapestry of French and northern hemisphere rugby. New Zealander Hayman and Englishman May were two of the early imports to the military port town as Boudjellal built his brigade. Hayman joined from Newcastle Falcons in the summer of 2010 with 45 All Blacks caps to his name, arriving with the club established in, if not yet dominating, the Top 14 after promotion from the second-tier Pro D2 two seasons earlier.
“It was touted as a big spending club but we hadn’t really done anything,” said Hayman, 37, of the early days prior to the money yielding silverware. “The first season I was there we finished seventh in the Top 14 and didn’t make the Heineken Cup. (Then coach) Philippe Saint-Andre made a lot of recruitments for the following season but then left for the French national team and Bernard Laporte came in.
“It was really from that moment it started to take off. We had Jonny (Wilkinson) and Matt Giteau. Up front we had myself, Andrew Sheridan and Bakkies Botha so we had a nucleus of a really good squad. We had a minimum of changes for the next few years and the guys who came in really added value to what we were doing and depth in positions where we didn’t have it.
“A massive amount of players have gone through the club since 2006 to when I got there in 2010, like George Gregan. A lot of guys helped along the way to get the club to where it is. But to get it up and running, it was Mourad in the beginning.”
Boudjellal’s time at Toulon’s helm has not been without controversy. There was the 130-day dressing room and pitchside ban he received from Top 14 chiefs for a lurid outburst against officials following a narrow defeat to Clermont in January 2012. There were protestations that French rugby is racist and offering to sell the club last year. But Hayman recalls a shrewd operator. A man with an eye for opportunity. Who opened up French rugby to new markets, especially the more illustrious nations down under.
“I don’t think anyone in New Zealand knew where Toulon was or anything about it,” added Hayman. “Then Tana signed (in 2006) and the whole of New Zealand knew about it. Mourad was very smart with the guys he signed back then, like George (Gregan) too. He would have had the same effect in Australia.
“He was very smart the way he went about it. He got the Japanese full-back (Christian Loamanu). After signing him the search engines in Japan got busy and everyone wanted to know where Toulon was, so he’s done very well.”
May joined in 2009 while holidaying on a beach in Barbados. Also at Newcastle at the time, the twice-capped England back described the whole process as surreal, but was soon swapping the North Sea for the Mediterranean.
“From the first day he wanted to make Toulon a massive mark on the rugby map and he has succeeded,” said May, 38. “The club is now a huge name in world rugby, let alone French or European rugby, and a large part of that can be put down to the drive and motivation of Mourad. Some might not be overly keen on him due to his persistent hunt of the limelight but you can’t say that he has done anything but do what he deems best for the club even though that might, at times, seem like complete lunacy from the outside.”
The sheen of success has worn off somewhat in recent years. Toulon haven’t won the Top 14 title in three seasons, beaten in the last two finals by Racing 92 and Clermont Auvergne. The money men have also fallen short in the renamed Rugby Champions Cup, beaten in the 2016 quarter-finals by domestic rivals Racing and Clermont at the same stage last season.
But they still possess a wealth of stars, with Habana, Lobbe and Smith still in place and joined next season by ex-England winger Chris Ashton and, in the last week, explosive All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa. Think what you will about the intentions of players who would rather seek fame and fortune abroad and turn their back on the famous black jersey, but neither Hayman nor May feel mercenary is a fair term to describe the various Toulon talents.
“The foreign guys that he got in were really good pros,” said Hayman, who claims the big names instilled professional standards at the club. “The Aussie guys like Matt and Drew (Mitchell) in particular are just really good pros, Bakkies too, and Jonny, really experienced campaigners and great ambassadors.
“Having Jonny there, with his work ethic and the way he went about things, he really dragged a lot of guys with him on the field. A lot of guys who perhaps wouldn’t normally be doing half an hour extra after practice or working on their skills, Jonny would be out there doing it and guys would gravitate to him and would start doing that stuff too.”
May concurs, claiming that players, whether earning big bucks or not, are still driven by dreams of glory.
“It’s easy to say the lads that go to Toulon go for the money but you could say that for anyone who goes anywhere in France to play,” the ex-Northampton Saints and London Welsh man said.
“The money is better out there. This will of course attract players as it is only a short career. That said, I don’t think many rugby players turn up and train just because they are happy to pick up a hefty pay cheque at the end of the month. The vast majority of them have an internal drive and motivation which means that they want to win and be the best.”