x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

UAE football undergraduates up against likes of Inter Milan, Valencia and Boca Juniors

Young players from Al Ain and five Dubai clubs are up for competing with the best of European teams to prepare for the future.

Lega Pro, in blue, beat the junior team of the Dubai club in the group stage of third Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum tournament at Al Ahli Club ground. The defending champion side from Italy will meet Valencia in the semi-finals. Courtesy handout photo
Lega Pro, in blue, beat the junior team of the Dubai club in the group stage of third Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum tournament at Al Ahli Club ground. The defending champion side from Italy will meet Valencia in the semi-finals. Courtesy handout photo

While the senior stars of the UAE were taking on some of the best teams in Asia this week in the Asian Champions League, youngsters at Pro League clubs Al Ain, Al Shabab, Al Wasl, Dubai, Al Nasr and Al Ahli have been playing some of the world's top youth sides.

Two tournaments - the Al Ain International Youth championship and the Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum International Under 19 Football Championships in Dubai - have seen the likes of Inter Milan, Manchester City, Celtic, Boca Juniors and Valencia send their youth teams to take on the best of the UAE.

Both competitions focus on player development and creating "stars of the future".

One example is Yousef Ahmed, who scored on his Champions League debut for Al Ain against Al Rayyan in Doha this week. He played in the Al Ain tournament, when it was U17, in 2011 and 2012.

The tournament is seen as a "graduation period" for Al Ain's youngsters, according to Khalifa Suleiman, one of the tournament organisers. "It is a last chance for them to hit their personal target."

Al Ain are the only UAE team participating in that tournament, but the Dubai event aims to give junior level players in the emirate's five clubs an opportunity to get an exposure of footballing styles from the rest of the world.

It is "part of our vision to encourage junior footballers in the UAE", said Ali Omar Al Balooshi from organisers Dubai Sports Council.

This week has seen group play in both tournaments, with semi-finals today.

In Dubai, Ahli and Nasr meet in the first semi-final, at 4.30, at Nasr's Humaid Al Tayer Stadium. In the second match, Lega Pro, the defending champions from Italy, will face Valencia, the Spanish team, at 7pm.

In Al Ain, Inter Milan, Japan's Kashiwa Reysol and Al Ain faced off in one group, while Benfica, the Portuguese side, Celtic of Scotland and Dinamo Zagreb from Croatia were in the second group.

Al Ain, who got the better of Celtic, meet Dinamo Zagreb in the final tonight, while the Scottish club face Inter in the play-off for third, both at the Khalifa bin Zayed stadium. Suleiman says the standard of teams is evidence of the tournament's vision of player development. "If we sought the title, we would contact some [lesser] teams than Al Ain team," he said.

Sergio Zanetti, the coach of Inter Milan's Under 19s, said that, though tournaments such as this might be seen as finishing schools for players before stepping up to the first team, talking too much about it just puts pressure on youngsters.

"First of all, the gap between the U19 and the first team is massive," said Zanetti, who is the older brother of Argentine international Javier. "Maybe one or two players may get a successful call-up for the first team"

According to Zanetti, tournaments such as the Al Ain championship provide opportunities for youngsters to gain experience by playing against different styles of football.

"Football is a very competitive career, if one has to choose," Zanetti said.

"Not everyone can make it to the top flight, apart from those who are outstandingly gifted. However, at this age level it is an important phase in the player's careers.

"As coaches we don't want to mention names and discuss them in public but there are some decent players with the potential to make it, big-time, in this team.

"It is hard work all the way and there is good reward for those who can make it to the top."

Zanetti's team lost 4-1 to Al Ain in a shoot-out after a 1-1 draw.

"Winning may not be the criteria at this level, yet it is good for the players, their morale, mentality and confidence. It teaches them how to win games and this is important when they play for the first teams."

apassela@thenational.ae

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