x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Dufrennes is proving his point at the Pro League's bottom club Kalba

The French striker tells Ahmed Rizvi about making Dubai his second home and his troubled season at Al Ahli in 2008.

Gregory Dufrennes, Kalba's French forward, at his villa in Dubai Motor City.
Gregory Dufrennes, Kalba's French forward, at his villa in Dubai Motor City.

In early 2006, when Gregory Dufrennes announced his decision to take up an offer from Dubai club in the UAE, his parents had strong reservations about it.

His father, Jean-Luc Dufrennes, who works for the French Federation and trains new coaches, was, in particular, not very pleased and for good reason. Gregory was 22, playing for Sete in the French second division, and a few years earlier, he had been part of France's age-group teams.

"He was a little angry because he knows that European football is the best," Dufrennes said. "When I came here, I was 22 years old. So it was normal; he wanted me to stay in Europe.

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"But when he came here for the first time, to Dubai club, all managers and officials spoke with him; he saw how I play and where I play, he understood my choice."

Dufrennes senior was Gregory's guide and inspiration as he took his first steps in football, growing up in Les Ulis, a suburb 20km outside the French capital of Paris. Thierry Henry was also born in Les Ulis and Patrice Evra went to school there.

Growing up under the tutelage of his father, Dufrennes moved to Cannes when he was 14 to sharpen his skills at a training school. A couple of years later, he was representing the France Under-17, U18 and U19 teams. A few of his teammates from those junior teams, including Jeremy Toulalan, are playing for the senior side now.

He played professionally with Valenciennes, Amiens and Sete, he said.

Dufrennes was in his second season with Sete, winners of the French title in 1934 and 1939, when he first received an offer to play in the UAE. It did not take him long to become convinced and the young Frenchman landed in Dubai in January, 2006.

He scored 41 goals in 43 matches with Dubai and his performances earned him a deal with Al Ahli in 2008. It was the season Ahli went on to win the Pro League title, but Dufrennes played no part in the glory.

The club failed to find a place for the striker and gave him the option of playing for their second team, or leaving. An altercation with teammate Faisal Khalil in training further strained his relationship with the club and Dufrennes is still bitter about the experience.

"Everywhere I feel very good," he said. "Only Al Ahli, it was very difficult because I feel some local players don't want to play with me. Everybody knows this story with Faisal Khalil. I think he made a big problem for me.

"I think in the last five years, Al Ahli had a big problem with every [foreign] striker. When I see on TV, this problem is only in Al Ahli. In Al Wahda, Al Jazira, they don't have this problem."

Officials at Al Ahli declined to comment on Dufrennes's time there.

Dufrennes returned briefly to Sete, but was back in the UAE in 2009, signing with Kalba, who were playing in Division One. He scored seven goals as the club topped their group to get a promotion to the Pro League.

As fate would have it, Dufrennes' first match for Kalba in the current season was against Ahli and he scored twice in a 2-2 draw.

"I believe there is God," he said. "I believe God helped me for this game; I don't know about the other games, but this game he certainly helped me."

He has a chance to make Ahli rue his departure again today when the two sides meet in Dubai.

Dufrennes has scored seven goals this season, but Kalba are still languishing at the bottom of the table with two wins and seven points from 13 matches. However, in their last league match, they drubbed the defending champions Al Wahda 5-3.

"I am happy with my personal game, but for our team it's not good," he said. "We are a young team, but when you are young and you can score five goals against Al Wahda, it's because you have some quality inside the team.

"I think our only problem in Kalba is concentration. I think we play better than some teams."

Dufrennes lives in Dubai with his wife, Emilie, and son, Enzo, who has just started going to school. He travels to Kalba for training daily.

"I enjoy playing for Kalba because everybody likes me - the coach and also the sheikh and manager," he said. "The local players help me every day. I am also the captain of the team; that's why I feel very well in this team."

He has a driver to take him on the long ride to Kalba for training, but sometimes he stays in Kalba for two or three days a week.

"I try to come back every day because it is difficult if I am not with my family. My wife works here and my baby goes to school here in Dubai. It's better they stay here."

Though he misses a few things about France, Dufrennes considers Dubai his home now. He had offers from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but decided to stay here and hopes he can continue for a few more years.

"My wife is happy in Dubai. She started working two years ago and she has friends and I think the life is better here. If it was bad, I don't stay here. It's better life now and I enjoy. That's why our life is here in Dubai, not in France.

"I miss the French food, and my mother and father; because they work too much, they cannot come every time. But everything is OK here. We have everything. They (his family) visit me and we like to receive our family. It's good because we like to show Dubai to our family."

While comfortable at Kalba, Dufrennes hopes to play for another top UAE club someday to disprove the reputation he gained during his time in Ahli; he said he was accused of not working hard enough and generally being a slacker.

"I hope I will play in a top team to show people the mistake in Al Ahli, it wasn't me," he said. "Only this. Believe me in Al Ahli it was very, very difficult for me to play.

"For me, if Al Ahli call me, I will not go back. I cannot. Very bad memories. They made some mistakes with me.

"In life we have football and we have respect; some people in Al Ahli don't respect. So it's not about my football, it's about my life. They did not respect me and my family."

 

arizvi@thenational.ae