x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Trips help heat up domestic challenges

A visit to the UAE has proved beneficial to sides utilising the warm climate during their winter break, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Jan 09, 2013 - Marcell Jansen (right) from Hamburg SV fight for the ball against Luuk de Jong from Borussia Monchengladbachat during a football match at Dubai Sevens Ground. ( Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper )
Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Jan 09, 2013 - Marcell Jansen (right) from Hamburg SV fight for the ball against Luuk de Jong from Borussia Monchengladbachat during a football match at Dubai Sevens Ground. ( Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper )

For a period of two or three years, it was whispered that a winter break in the UAE provided football teams not only with sunshine, top facilities and a paparazzi-free environment, but also with the promise each would return home and excel in their domestic leagues or cup competitions.

Take 2008 for example: Zenit St Petersburg arrived at Dubai's Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence in January for the first of what has since become their annual winter training camp. The Russian side was then coached by Dick Advocaat, the Dutchman who managed the UAE national side for a short period in 2005.

Advocaat clearly knew what the Emirates had to offer and so Zenit, based in St Petersburg, the Russian city that in January endures an average temperature of minus 5.5°C, came to the UAE for little more than a week.

While here, they trained - sometimes double sessions - on pitches maintained to the highest of standards and during players' downtime, they were able to visit the shopping malls and restaurants or relax on the beach.

Five months later, Zenit won the Uefa Cup for the first time in their history.

Of course, such a coincidence could be a quirk of fate. Certainly the fact Advocaat boasted a squad that included Andrey Arshavin and Anatoliy Tymoschuk is a clear indicator the result was no bolt from the Baltic blue. Yet it was not the only example of a team excelling following a winter break in the UAE.

Inter Milan and Bayern Munich both reached the Champions League final in 2010 after training in Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively, while in 2011 AC Milan won the Serie A title for the first time in seven years after a training camp in Dubai.

Add to that upturns in the fortunes for English Premier League sides Aston Villa in 2009 and Tottenham Hotspur in 2011 and it is easy to understand why the Emirates are currently filled with football teams from across Europe.

Eintracht Frankfurt and Borussia Monchengladbach are in the UAE this week for the first time, while Hamburg have returned for the third time in four years.

The weather plays a major factor, according to Hamburg's manager, Thorsten Fink. "Everything is good here," he said. "Everybody is happy if you open the windows in the morning and you look at the sun, In Germany it is bad weather but we are here to train hard that is clear."

The German sides will depart this weekend, following a couple of friendlies, to resume hostilities in the Bundesliga. They will, however, be replaced by an invasion of Eastern European sides.

Zenit and Lokomotiv Moscow will both be at Jebel Ali's Centre of Excellence, joined by Ukraine's Metalist Kharkiv and Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor. The Uzbekistan national team are to arrive next week and Shakhtar Donetsk will train in Abu Dhabi.

"We're going to have five teams here at the same time and all staying at the hotel, it's incredible really," Derek Whyte, the business development officer and academy coach at Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence, said.

"We've actually had to turn teams away this year. A lot of teams from Eastern Europe rang up looking to come over, but we don't have the space for them."

Officials at Jebel Ali are in talks with Swansea City and West Ham United, who are both keen to travel to Dubai in late January or early February.

"When it comes to English teams, obviously they don't have winter breaks like in Germany or Russia so a lot of it depends on whether they are still in the FA Cup," Chris Brown, Whyte's colleague and the centre's academy manager, said. "If they get knocked out, then it frees up a week or two on the schedules."

Brown says trips to the Emirates are not necessarily cheaper than other popular international training bases such as Turkey or Spain's La Manga, but that teams continue to return year-on-year to Jebel Ali because they know what they can expect. Zenit's final bill last year is understood to have totalled more than Dh1 million for a 10-day camp.

"In terms of cost, it depends on the time of year and the number of staff the club brings with them," Brown said. "The majority of the expenditure is on hotel rooms and food and beverage and certainly we receive a very small amount of what a club like Zenit would pay out."

Brown added often English clubs visit now on a sponsored trip and as a result receive complimentary accommodation as part of the package. When Tottenham came in 2011, they stayed at Meydan and Monchengladbach are doing similar this week as part of an annual Bundesliga charm offensive.

Germany's top flight has a contract with Dubai Sports television channel that dates back to the mid-2000s. However, since 2008, the deal has included the clause that each winter, the league must send one club over to train in Dubai. Jorg Daubitzer, the managing director of the Bundesliga's marketing team, refused to disclose the financial details but he did tell The National that such an agreement is unprecedented.

"The training camp deal; we do that with no other country in the world, so it's a special situation," Daubitzer said. "Yes, from an economic side, the deal is very attractive and important, but it is not only because of economics.

"Courtesy of Dubai Sports, we are reaching 130 million homes and we are reaching them free to air. They broadcast nine matches weekly, send moderators and presenters to the Bundesliga games and have their own studio. We have to support them."