x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Abu Dhabi in tomorrow's plans for football's NextGen Series

Abu Dhabi and Qatar remain in the expansion plans of Fifa's Under 19 'Champions League'.

Karim Rekik, left, and his Manchester City B teammates can only benefit getting to play Vivaldi Bakoyoc and Barcelona B in competitions.
Karim Rekik, left, and his Manchester City B teammates can only benefit getting to play Vivaldi Bakoyoc and Barcelona B in competitions.

DUBAI // European football's embryonic Under 19 "Champions League" is exploring the possibility of expanding into the Middle East next season with Abu Dhabi and Qatar both understood to be intent on future involvement at some level.

The object of the NextGen Series is to replicate the Uefa Champions League by providing the continent's finest young players with the opportunity to experience different styles of football against clubs from around Europe within a competitive format.

This year's competition, which started in August, features youth teams from 16 of Europe's most prestigious clubs, including Barcelona, Ajax, Inter Milan and Manchester City.

City's involvement has seen interest grow in Abu Dhabi and the possibility of the capital hosting the latter stages of this year's tournament was floated earlier this season before the teams indicated that, in its inaugural year, it would be best if the final, to be played on March 26, was held in London.

The National understands Abu Dhabi is in talks to host the semi-finals and final of next year's tournament, but Mark Warburton, the head of football at NextGen, said he is concentrating primarily on ensuring this year's competition is successful.

"It is too early to say," Warburton said when asked about Abu Dhabi's involvement next season. "All our efforts have been making sure this works.

"Organising every team involves an individual approach: what suits Tottenham Hotspur might not suit Liverpool, what suits Barcelona might not suit Ajax. So that's been the focus of our business plan so far - to make sure it is delivered.

"Now we are talking to people and seeing whether sponsorship is available, and we would love to come to the region because playing in the Middle East - as the boys will be hoping to do in 10 years time - would provide them with another challenge."

The Fifa World Cup will be held in Qatar in 2022, and the hope is the players who progress positively through the next few years of the NextGen Series will be the household names when the world's attention turns to the Middle East in a decade's time.

"That was the original idea," said Warburton, who is also sporting director at Brentford, the English League One side.

"The average age at the World Cup final was just shy of 27, so these players who are playing in the event will be at their absolute peak in 2022 and we will see some outstanding quality - and not just the players, but coaches, kit-men, so many people involved with the club gain that experience."

The signs appear to point to a successful first season.

Warburton confirmed that a number of clubs have asked to compete in next year's tournament, while it is understood both Chelsea and Real Madrid are expected to register their participation for 2012.

Organisers also want an expanded format to feature 24 teams next year and 32 teams by 2013.

With potential Middle East involvement on the horizon, the door could open for Pro League teams such as Al Jazira and Al Wasl to benefit from the NextGen series.

Jazira, owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, have a development tie-up with Manchester City, while Wasl last year employed Albert Benaiges, the former Barcelona youth coach, to improve the level of talent being produced in the Emirates.

"Delivering a world-class event is the priority for now, but if we can - in time - travel to a new region and include new clubs, absolutely we are open to talk to the appropriate people," Warburton said.