x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Manchester United set up camp in capital

A little confusion in City's UAE base but youngsters are excited as they go to football school wearing their favourite club's colours.

ABU DHABI // When Sir Alex Ferguson referred last September to his Manchester United side having "noisy neighbours", there was little doubt about who he was talking about.

United's city rivals had been acquired by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed in 2008 and had begun spending vast amounts of money in their bid to become the biggest team in Manchester.

A year on from Ferguson's comments and Manchester City have undoubtedly closed the gap considerably. They have also, courtesy of their increased profile, become synonymous with Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mansour's home city.

It is hardly surprising then that when the red team from Manchester started advertising the launch of their new football camp in the UAE capital, some parents had to check to make sure they had not misread the promotional material.

"I got confused initially," said Saleh al Amari, a distinguished Emirati dressed in a white dishdashah and watching his son Ahmed from the sidelines of the Dome at Al Rawdhat on Airport Road. "I thought, maybe I made a mistake and it was not Manchester United but Manchester City as Abu Dhabi owns it, but when I read it again, I was pleased to see it was United because I have been in the UK and have visited Old Trafford a couple of times."

Ahmed is just one of more than 150 children between the ages of seven and 16 who have registered for the inaugural Manchester United Soccer School (MUSS) in Abu Dhabi, which got under way on Saturday.

The 75-minute sessions run for six weeks between October 30 and December 11 and have attracted an international response with youngsters from as far afield as Italy and Indonesia signing up to represent their favourite club.

"He told me earlier that this is the best day of his life," Samia Nacef, who is Algerian, said of her nine-year-old son Rayan. "He woke up at 7am and was desperate to get here and get started. He has supported United since he was one or two and is a fan of all the players such as Nani and [Dimitar] Berbatov."

Dressed in a red Manchester United training top, a timid Rayan said it felt special to wear the badge. He was voted "Player of the Day" by Andy Dixon, the Uefa B-licensed coach with 10 years' experience working with United, and now hopes to build on that in the coming weeks and be selected as one of two players rewarded with a trip to United's Old Trafford stadium.

Dale Hobson, the director of International Development at Manchester United, said the two-year deal with Reem Investments in Abu Dhabi is a direct replacement for the MUSS based in Dubai Sports City that came to the end of its five-year contract in May.

He also said he experienced no indication that United's move was being viewed as a means of muscling in on City's territory. "We were very keen to ensure that nobody was going to be embarrassed by that," Hobson said.

"We are relaxed about it and don't feel like we are in City's backyard at all. This city is big enough for the both of us and as we understand it, everybody here is very comfortable, right at the top."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae