If having a ski dome in a Dubai shopping mall did not seem surreal enough, Soccerex chiefs added to the realms of unreality when they staged a five-a-side football tournament there.
It was 2006 and visitors to the Mall of the Emirates were mesmerised as legends such as Phil Thompson, a seven-time former title winner with Liverpool, former Manchester United and England captain Bryan Robson, Iran’s ‘Asian Pele’ Ali Daie and Egyptian hero Hossam Hassan evoked memories of their glorious playing days.
The innovative idea left even Sepp Blatter stunned by the audacity of it all.
The outgoing FIFA president was in town for the then 10th anniversary of Soccerex, the world’s largest business-to-business football conference, and witnessed again how the Gulf was fast becoming a hot spot for sporting events.
A year previously, Robson was joined by Old Trafford and France superstar Eric Cantona and the late former England manager Sir Bobby Robson for a session of coaching and skills at Jumeirah Beach Hotel.
With a who’s who of football in regular attendance as Dubai hosted the Soccerex conference from 2002 to 2007, it played a part in the introduction of a new UAE professional league and perhaps helped sway influential minds about the prospect of a first-ever World Cup in the Middle East.
Despite the controversy, Qatar will have that honour in 2022 and Duncan Revie, founder of Soccerex, said: “Dubai opened people’s eyes to how up and coming that region was in terms of football and sport. Back in 2000 when we made the decision to come, Dubai wasn’t known as it is now.
“It was very much a closed shop. People now know what a fabulous place the UAE is and Qatar is going to follow suit.
“Johannesburg was not a very popular destination for Soccerex, but we helped shine a light on it – that it is safe, people are great and it will be a great World Cup in South Africa.
“When we came to Dubai, it showcased the city, the region, and Soccerex brings all the great football minds so you can learn from them on the conference platform and all the exhibitors showing their wares and the latest cutting edge products. Instead of doing 11 meetings with 11 flights across 11 different weeks, you can often do it in a few days.”
It was a format, a niche, that Revie first unveiled in 1995 with wife Rita, a seed planted by a visit to a music industry conference in Manchester.
The city will this week again host the Global Convention, marking the 20th anniversary of Soccerex.
Rather fitting as Revie, son of the late Don Revie, says: “We have been all over the world, but we are back in Manchester, where we conceived it at the Midland Hotel. I was born in Manchester, dad was Footballer of the Year when at Manchester City, so it is a homecoming.”
But Revie, 61, hasn’t always enjoyed home comforts as he recalls “a lot of bumps in the road”, including the time when the Jumeirah Hotels and Resorts agreed a six-year deal to stage the event in Dubai from 2001.
“We called it the World Convention at the start, but I didn’t foresee that 20 years later we would have done five Continents and 20 cities,” he said. “We didn’t particularly have a good event when we first moved abroad in Paris, and then we had the case of cancellation in Dubai in 2001, after 9/11, and had to start in 2002.
Then we had to postpone the second one there in 2003 because of the Gulf War, which began on the same day as we were beginning.
“But everyone in Dubai was so helpful, the Sheikhs, our supporters, and that gave us the springboard to go on and get better.”
The Revie family’s association with the Emirates stretches back to 1977 when Don quit as England manager to take charge of the UAE national side. Many thought the man who shaped the great Leeds United side of the 1960s and 70s would not last long in the desert, but he spent six years in the Emirates, coaching Al Nasr too.
– #360business: Thailand hoping to become golfing paradise
– #360business: Crisis turns football into a Greek tragedy
– #360business: Inside GoPro’s revolutionary marketing model
– Real Madrid: La Liga giants named world’s most valuable team
And it is why Revie would love for Soccerex to return to the UAE. “We have got about 21 different cities wanting Soccerex events and we will now be going out to tender for the main convention and other forums,” he added.
“We will be in Manchester for the next two years and then we have got the Asian Forum, Americas Forum and African Forum and they will be going to different cities from 2017 onwards. The tender documents will be going out and Dubai is on the list and Abu Dhabi as well.
“It would be great to come back to the UAE because that’s where we really took off, the starting point from where it began to become a global event.
“And all the support we had through those two postponements hasn’t been forgotten – and neither has the fact how my dad had a fabulous six years there.
“When he left the England job everyone thought he was going to far-off desert. But he disproved that and it’s got even better.
“Similarly with Qatar too – and I’m pretty sure, let’s put it this way, we will be somewhere with Soccerex in the Middle East in the next four or five years.”
Not only will that help towards sporting development and international exposure, but also boost the local economy. Manchester marketing officials estimated Soccerex would generate £23m for the city during its four-year tenure.
While confidentiality does not allow him to divulge more details, Revie says deals worth “hundreds of millions of pounds” have been negotiated at Soccerex since its inception.
“Clubs have been bought and sold, and shirt sponsorships have been done,” he adds. “One deal fairly well documented was the Bwin shirt deal with Real Madrid that was done at Soccerex in 2006.
“More recently, the adidas deal with Jordan was signed at Soccerex in Asia four months ago. Some of the new lucrative television deals were negotiated too. In
Barbados where we had our Americas Forum they were talking about a league for the Caribbean.
— SoccerexFF (@SoccerexFF) September 6, 2015
“This week we have got the whole of the English Football League coming, the Premier League, La Liga and a meeting of their commercial directors. It’s becoming THE meeting place.”
And just like the last Global Convention in Manchester, the FIFA presidency will be a hot topic. A year ago Blatter did a link to the event to declare his intention to remain as leader of world football’s governing body.
But following revelations of corruption that saw several FIFA executives arrested by US authorities, the Swiss will step down from his role once a successor is elected in February, 2016.
Today, Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, president of the Jordan Football Association, will talk at Soccerex and reveal whether he will stand again, having gained 73 votes to Blatter’s 133 in a May election.
“Prince Ali will be fascinating to listen to, his ideas on the past and future, and grassroots through the Asian Football Development,” says Revie.
“It (Soccerex) is the Cannes of the football festivals. We have all of the celebrities and the sparkle, but also make sure we have a platform for the people who attend to do business. It’s a rarefied atmosphere and they are all decision makers.
“We make sure with our Soccermatch system, meeting areas and networking facilities, that our customers meet the people they want to meet. They want to do deals and Soccerex affords them the environment to do that.”
Know more about Sport360 Application