Football reality show hopes to find 'new Mo Salah' for Italy's Serie A in Arab world

Starzplay's The Italian Dream to scout for talent in UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco

Francesco Totti, left, PureHealth co-founder Shaista Asif and Serie A chief executive Luigi De Siervo. Victor Besa / The National
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A new reality show will give young football players from around the Arab world a shot at playing in Serie A.

The Italian Dream is a six-episode reality series on Starzplay that will follow Serie A officials as they go around four countries in the region to scout for promising young players. The contenders will be selected from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco. A single winner will then go on to play in the leading Italian football league.

Serie A is home to Italy's foremost clubs, including AS Roma, Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan and SSC Napoli. The last three had a particularly good year, qualifying for the quarter finals in this year’s Uefa Champions League. Inter Milan also made it to the finals in June, but lost the cup to Manchester City.

The clubs in Serie A are among the most popular in the Middle East, and with The Italian Dream players from the region will have the unprecedented opportunity to play for their favourite team.

The idea for the series, Starzplay chief executive Maaz Sheikh said, came about when the company began streaming Serie A on their platform and saw the appeal it had to the younger audience.

“This was the first time a major European league is being streamed, rather than being available on satellite boxes,” he said. “What we saw is that the connection with the youth and younger audience was very strong. We were also fortunate that this year, the Italian league had a very successful season, with three Serie A teams in the quarter finals of the Uefa Champions League.”

Inspired to take the relationship beyond streaming, Starzplay approached healthcare provider Pure Health and Abu Dhabi production company Image Nation to come aboard as partners.

Contestants for The Italian Dream will be selected from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco. Victor Besa / The National

“We looked for ways to take it into the lives and homes of people,” said Sheikh. “Football is a passion in this part of the world, and what better way than to give kids a chance to play in the Italian league.”

Screening events will begin taking place across participating countries in October. Sheikh said the series will rely on coaches and scouts from Serie A to screen players, bringing “the best of the best from each country” to Abu Dhabi.

“The idea is to bring all of them to Abu Dhabi, and that’s when the training and development happens.”

The screening and training process will all be documented as part of the reality series. “That’s where Image Nation comes in as our production partners,” Sheikh said. “They will be the ones turning what’s happening on the ground into an entertainment show.”

The screening, training and competition aspects of The Italian Dream, Sheikh said, will take around 18 months, with the show airing on Starzplay after a winner has been selected.

“Once the whole process is concluded that’s when we complete the six episodes and that’s when we start streaming,” Sheikh said.

Maaz Sheikh, chief executive of Starzplay, speaking during The Italian Dream launch event. Victor Besa / The National

The Starzplay chief executive hinted that if The Italian Dream proves to be a success, the media company will look into launching similar projects in other sports, including Mixed Martial Arts.

“Broadcasting and streaming is one thing but if you can incorporate local talent then that makes it a much more powerful story,” he said.

The Italian Dream was officially revealed by Starzplay and Pure Health at an event at the Ritz Carlton in Abu Dhabi.

Italian football legend Francesco Totti attended the unveiling along with chief executive of Serie A, Luigi De Siervo, as well as officials from Starzplay and Pure Health. Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi chairman Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak was also in attendance.

Speaking to The National on the sidelines of the event, Totti said the region has already proved its mettle on the football pitch during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, when Morocco placed fourth and Saudi Arabia beat Argentina in an unexpected 2-1 victory during the group opener.

Italian football giant Francesco Totti was a guest of honor during the launch of The Italian Dream. Victor Besa / The National

“Football in the region is a reality,” Totti said. “I believe we can develop a lot of nice talents from the region, and they will have the tactical ability to go play in the Italian league.”

Totti said he has been lucky to play with the likes of Mohamed Salah and Medhi Benatia during his career and doesn’t doubt that a player from the Arab world “can develop and grow in Italy.”

The football star, who is regarded as one of the finest athletes in the sport, said he has a soft spot for the region and particularly the UAE, where he was touched by the country’s hospitality.

“I have been here before,” he said. “I love this country. It is very amicable and with great hospitality. I hope we can have the opportunity to come here more often.”

De Siervo, for his part, said The Italian Dream may pave the way for “the new Salah” to emerge on the global stage by playing at the Serie A. The Italian league, he said, will play a vital role in helping football develop in the region.

“We believe this is a project for the future of the youth,” he said. “We hope we will find the new Salah, a new talent that can make his professional career in Italy.”

De Siervo also noted that as many retired players in the Serie A went on to pursue coaching careers, he could see the winning player of The Italian Dream eventually returning to the Middle East to train the next generation of football athletes.

He also said Serie A was looking forward to developing its collaboration in Abu Dhabi.

“We have had a good experience opening our office [here],” he said. “From this relationship a new and bigger co-operation will be born.”

Updated: September 15, 2023, 1:47 PM