x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Pro League clubs warm up away from the summer heat

An exodus of Pro League teams to Europe began this week. John McAuley looks at why clubs choose training camps abroad.

Al Ain have gone to Madrid for their pre-season training camp. Photo Courtesy of Al Ain FC
Al Ain have gone to Madrid for their pre-season training camp. Photo Courtesy of Al Ain FC

The training pitch at Al Nasr, which all summer has echoed to screams from the head coach Walter Zenga as he demands more from his players, lies dormant.

On an adjacent patch of grass and under floodlights, young Emiratis enjoy a friendly game of football. With only three weeks to the start of the new Pro League season, the atmosphere at one of its most prominent clubs seems strangely subdued.

Yet it is a scene similar to those at the majority of our top-flight clubs. Even Al Ain's Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium, home to the UAE champions who have designs this season on conquering Asia, remains enveloped in silence.

This is no extended Eid, though. On the contrary, the country's best footballers are enduring rigorous regimes across mainland Europe. Training camps have stolen our stars.

These expeditions to Germany, Italy, Spain or Portugal are a vital part of the Pro League pre-season, as teams make final preparations for the long season ahead; an elongated one this year as it includes two extra entrants.

The most glaring factor in forcing clubs to set up camp outside the Emirates is, obviously, the searing heat and stifling humidity here at this time of year.

"The weather makes it very difficult to maximise your training," said Mick McDermott, the man at Nasr in charge of players' fitness. "Some days last week we had a certain programme planned only to show up at the ground and find it was 43° Celsius, with 57 per cent humidity.

"It's a major factor in looking outside the country."

Nasr have sought two camps in Italy - one just outside Rome and a second in the capital - where they will train almost every day, discuss tactics and contest a maximum of five friendlies against quality opposition. Their approach is not unique.

Al Ain have travelled to Madrid, its cooler climate allowing the players to build on a solid foundation of fitness already obtained during a similar trip to Austria last month.

The champions, like many of their contemporaries, use the camp as an intensive training programme, incorporating daily two or sometimes three sessions. It is a "luxury" the UAE simply does not permit.

"We could stay in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but the coach [Cosmin Olaroiu] wants to train morning and evening and that's just not possible there," said Liam Weeks, the head of performance analysis at Al Ain.

"In the future maybe someone will open a world-class indoor training facility, or an air-conditioned indoor stadium, but as of now we need to go abroad."

Humaid Yousef reinforces the point. The Al Wasl team manager says he prefers the Dubai club's current home in Munich to the oppressive confines of the Zabeel Stadium last season, when then coach Diego Maradona kept his side at home in the build-up to the 2011/12 campaign.

"We stayed because it was Ramadan and Diego wanted us to remain in Dubai. The league started only a short time after that," Yousef said, adding sarcastically: "It was fantastic.

"In truth, it was difficult to train. It was so hot and humid that the players expended too much energy, which wasn't good especially for the beginning of the season. It was hard on the mind and the muscles. It's better now in Germany."

Al Ahli have migrated to Malaga, the Spanish coastal city that looks out over the Mediterranean, until September 10. Abdulmajeed Hussain, the director of the first team, chose southern Spain over eastern Europe and the Far East, as Malaga facilitated easy acclimatisation to and from the camp.

However, suitable weather is not the only pull factor. The camps are integral to developing an understanding of tactics and footballing philosophy, with matches against the likes of Atletico Madrid and Fiorentina - for Al Ain and Nasr respectively - providing the players a platform to test their talents on a grander stage.

There is also the opportunity, crucially, for players to cultivate relationships with teammates: stronger bonds are built.

"The whole squad is together for 20 days," said Hussain. "That allows the players to evolve as a group and the adaptation is especially important to new players.

"We work like a family and live like a family. It gives the team more motivation to get to know and understand one another because they're together during training, during meals and during rest days."

McDermott concurs, and having experienced camps in America, Iran and the UAE cites the importance of keeping players motivated, and interested, during their time away.

Extra-curricular activities have included white water rafting, cliff diving and the slightly less adrenalin-fuelled endeavour of a trivia night. This weekend, Nasr will take in a Serie A game, while Al Ain travel to the Bernabeu tomorrow night to witness a Spanish Super Cup el clasico.

Asamoah Gyan and his teammates also maintain morale through PlayStation battles, playing cards or, as Weeks reveals, causing a din on the journey to and from the hotel.

"All the players will be singing on the bus, no doubt," he said. "Gyan's a big part of that as are the younger players, too - it's like 'Arabs' Got Talent'.

"Morale is obviously very high because of last season and that'll build throughout the camp. Boredom won't be a problem. These guys have been away several times before and senior players such as Ali Al Wehaibi and Hilal Saeed know how to keep the rest of the group entertained.

"But we don't need to keep the boys in check. They're all professional athletes; they take care of themselves and we certainly won't have any disciplinary problems with them."

Both Weeks and McDermott emphasis the benefit of a "controlled environment", and it is here managers, especially those taking their first training camps with their clubs - Quique Sanchez Flores at Ahli, Bruno Metsu at Wasl, Paul Bonamigo at Al Jazira - can harness having the players' undivided attention.

The location is usually decided following a visit to evaluate its suitably, most typically at the end of the previous season.

Accessibility to training pitches is carefully considered, and the hotel must offer adequate facilities, including a gym and swimming pool, for players' fitness and recovery.

This is a pivotal period, after all.

"It is the most important stage ahead of the season because we spend most of the time training and discussing game plans and strategies," said Al Wahda's Srdan Andric, the Croatian midfielder currently at their camp in Rosenberg in Germany.

"We need to do something more than the normal training at home so the players get the feeling this is a crucial season ahead. The camp provides a special place to get the players training and fully focused."

Mohammed Salem Al Enazi, the team manager at Al Jazira, said of their base in Vienna: "The camps has several benefits, but most importantly it gets the group focused on the season ahead. They will be in optimum shape when they return in time for the Super Cup match [against Al Ain] on September 17."

By that stage Nasr will have returned to the Al Maktoum Stadium, the players' ears undoubtedly ringing from a few weeks spent in the company of Zenga, their fiery Italian manager. The mission of the camp is to be primed for an assault on the title that escaped their grasp last season.

"Aside from the obvious physical preparations, the ultimate goal of this camp is develop team rhythm and team tactics; your understanding between players is the most important thing before the season starts," said McDermott. "We want them firing on all cylinders for the road ahead."

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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