x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UAE's big Olympic dreams are taking shape in little Lienz

A quiet locale but with all amenities is what the football team needs to focus on the job at hand, writes Paul Oberjuerge from Austria.

The weather at the Alpine training base of Lienz in Austria is mild and close to the one they will have to endure at the Olympics in London, Great Britain.
The weather at the Alpine training base of Lienz in Austria is mild and close to the one they will have to endure at the Olympics in London, Great Britain.

The little town of Lienz, population 11,000, lies at the intersection of three narrow valleys and at the confluence of two rushing, snow-fed rivers.

North and south of the medieval city's narrow streets, the Alps soar into the Tyrolean sky and the idyllic days of mild summer sun are sometimes interrupted by sudden downpours, with lightning banging off the peaks, while rolling thunder, like angry conversation in the clouds, shakes the vale below.

For desert dwellers, this environment of cold water and green mountains could hardly be more exotic.

But this is where the UAE Olympic football team have chosen to spend the second half of their Alpine training ahead of the serious business that is the London 2012 Games.

The footballers have taken up residence at the city's only five-star hotel, the Grandhotel Lienz, and to look outside in any direction is to be struck by scenes of physical beauty.

To the north is the carefully manicured Zettersfeld ski resort, and to the east the more challenging Hochstein runs.

And to sit on the hotel terrace is to be a few metres from the Isel River, hurrying to meet up with the Drava, in turn a tributary of the faraway Danube.

A little bit of the UAE has been brought to the Grandhotel. The whole of the first floor has been given over to the 23 footballers in the squad, and much of the hotel's energy is directed to fulfilling their needs: food and drink and meeting rooms and video games for the players between training sessions.

A large meeting room, on the players' floor, has been turned into a sprawling gym with new equipment, and lots of it.

"When Mahdi Ali spoke to me about the Grandhotel, he said he liked it but it needed a gym put in," said Souhaib Mishmish, an Emirati who specialises in setting up camps for football clubs training in Austria. "So we put in a new gym."

The players are led and supported by a staff appointed by the Football Association (FA).

As the coach, Mahdi Ali is the centre of this particular universe, but he is aided by a two assistant coaches, a team doctor, a physiotherapist, a nutritionist, a fitness expert, a match analyst, two masseurs, a media coordinator, a photographer, a marketing official and the wise old campaigner Adnan Al Talyani, the most prolific scorer in UAE annals and veteran of the 1990 World Cup.

The team train on the other side of the Drava River, at the Dolomiten Stadium, home of the local club Rapid Lienz.

The pitch nearly abuts the base of a rocky outcrop of the Dolomites, and a stretch of benches runs along the eastern side of the picturesque but no-frills pitch.

Having qualified for the Olympic football tournament for the first time, the FA is sparing no effort in having its side, lightly regarded internationally, at the peak of their powers come July 26 and their first game, in Manchester, against Uruguay. And that explains a particularly long camp, featuring two sites and eight friendlies over the course of one full month.

They began at Montana, Switzerland, at 1,500 metres altitude, before shifting to Lienz on July 3, where opponents are more plentiful, the altitude not as lofty but the scenery no less stunning and the temperatures just as mild.

Two outside agencies of Emirati origin have done much to give the players and staff the ability to concentrate on matters football.

Borouge, a plastics company co-owned by Adnoc and an Austrian firm, is the "official sponsor" of the UAE pre-Olympic camps and has underwritten the entire expense of the one month in the Alps.

FA sources indicated the cash support has been in excess of Dh1 million. Adel Ali Al Fahim, an Abu Dhabi native and a regional communications manager for Borouge, would not confirm the level of support, but he said the company's quick decision to fill the role was a matter of national pride as well as a hard-headed marketing decision.

"Not everyone knows Borouge," he said, "and we thought to ourselves that sport is one of the great marketing tools, and in the UAE that means football, and especially the Olympic team," he said. "This is a team with many victories, and we believe in them. We know they can do a lot. They need support, and that is what we have done.

"Even if they lose in London, they will not do so easily, and we believe they can get out of their group. This is a golden team, a dream team, and they can make the country proud."

Another important actor is Mishmish, the vice chairman of the Dubai-based Royal Concorde Sports Management.

He is the man responsible for arranging the friendlies and acting almost as the Olympic team's host here in Austria, in which he spends a significant part of each year.

He said Mahdi Ali and the FA wanted a site with all the amenities, but they also needed a sense of being out of the way, as well as an Alpine town where the weather is both capricious and wet, as it can be in the English summer.

Little Lienz fills the bill on all counts.

The citizens of the town seems almost unaware of the party of 30-plus Emiratis; the hotel is on the quieter side of the city, and the players venture outside only rarely, aside from the bus rides to the training pitch.

The residents here are polite and friendly, but the local industry is tourism, and they know that the unfamiliar faces will soon move on.

The immediate goal seems to be to project a vision of healthy, outdoors living, and they have the hiking trails, fast water and bicycle tours to back it up, in the summer, and the ski slopes, in the winter.

Everyone here seems to be going to or returning from some form of hard exercise, and such is the case for the visitors from the Gulf.

But the footballers' most challenging exertions remain ahead of them, in another country, beginning in two weeks in a stadium that seats 80,000.

Their memories of Lienz are less likely to be the charm and physical beauty of the place, and more along the lines of "the place where we prepared ourselves for London".



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