European football teams find refuge from winter in the Middle East

The climate in the Middle East provides a haven for European football teams for winter training, which means a boost for hotels and excitement for the region's fans.

Joe Cole of  West Ham United during a training session at Dubai Sports City. Jaime Puebla / The National
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As extreme winter weather grips most of the western world, the Middle East usually enjoys sunshine and blue skies.

Combine the climate with an assortment of entertainment, sports and cultural events, and it is not surprising the region is growing as a top destination among the affluent and celebrated.

More tellingly, this region, predominantly the UAE and Qatar, is gaining a global reputation as a rejuvenating hub for top international football clubs and national teams during their winter breaks.

The English Premier League (EPL) champions Manchester United were in Dubai this week and will be training at the Hamdan bin Mohammed Complex behind closed doors. The Red Devils join EPL compatriots Stoke City and West Ham United, with Dubai Sports City acting as hosts.

There is a reciprocal benefit for the UAE in the form of a boost for worldwide awareness of the country and a fillip for hotels and restaurants that play host to the teams, their staff and followers.

The rising number of tourists coming to this country, which pushed hotel occupancy up 2.9 per cent to 76.3 per cent last December compared with the same period in 2012, can in part be explained by the fact that such visits from high-profile sports teams have put the UAE firmly in the world spotlight as a destination both for sports fans and the wider travelling public.

The reasons top teams favour the region are clear – to assess the performances of the first half of the season, revive weary players for a push to finish strong for the second half and do so in a more comfortable environment than the deep winter back home.

And, of course, it provides a great opportunity to heighten awareness of the clubs and open up potentially rewarding markets. As a business, Manchester United Football Club is adept at wringing profits from even a lacklustre season such as the one it is suffering just now, with the defending champions this week posting higher earnings on record sales.

Adjusted profit for the three months to December 31 was £19.8 million (Dh121.7m) compared with £19m in the year-earlier period. Higher sponsorship income helped to boost total revenue 12 per cent to £122.9m.

Although top-flight teams have unofficially visited the country regularly in the past, interest really kicked off with the Dubai Challenge Cup, founded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, in 2007. The first series involved the Emirati and the Iranian national teams participating alongside the big German clubs Hamburg SV and Stuttgart. Since then, clubs including the Italian giants Inter Milan and the French big hitters Paris Saint-Germain have started to stop by.

Why would they not? The UAE is about seven hours flying time from London, there are no requirements for visas for tourists, the facilities are a comparatively cheaper option than Europe and, from the players’ point of view the most important of all, the average temperature is 25°C in February.

Newcastle United was one such club that made the trip this year to Abu Dhabi – as a team bonding exercise and to evaluate the club’s objectives approaching the halfway stage of the season. Players and staff alike also had the opportunity to relax and recuperate while taking in the sights and sounds of the capital.

“We felt the weather in the UAE would suit us perfectly and that proved to be the case. Warm-weather training away from the cold of England at this time of year was just the job. We were made to feel very welcome in and around the hotel and training area, which was very much appreciated by the team management and players” said a Newcastle United spokesman.

Abu Dhabi-backed Manchester City were initially scheduled to visit the capital in line with its sponsorship errands and play a high-profile friendly against Al Ain to commemorate the opening of the Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. Unfortunately that had to be postponed after they were held to a draw in the FA Cup by Blackburn Rovers. City were due to travel to Al Ain to take on the Arabian Gulf League champions in a January 14 friendly to mark the opening of the new 25,000-seater stadium.

However, the third-round FA Cup draw meant the replay with Blackburn was set to take place on January 15, scuppering the Al Ain party.

Still, fans of European football here had the chance to see Hamburg, who visited the country during the January transfer window, stopping over in the capital for a week. Their mid-season break included a friendly against the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem in Abu Dhabi.

But Hamburg’s intention was to fund the journey to Abu Dhabi by taking a tedious three-day trip to Indonesia to play a friendly – which did not go as planned, as the €450,000 (Dh2.25m) generated in revenues from the game did not justify the approximately €200,000 cost of the trip to the UAE.

Hamburg’s coach, Bert van Marwijk, expressed his frustration. “The journey is not ideal,” he said, although he recognised the fact that the club had to earn money.

A Hamburg board member, Joachim Hilke, said: “We have made the journey to fulfil the desire for a quality training camp in Abu Dhabi to change the current situation of the club based on its performances.”

Meanwhile, the UAE’s football-loving neighbour, Qatar, is also active as a host to international football. The nation’s Aspire Zone and its state-of-the-art facilities and hotels have entertained the PSG and the Spanish giants Real Madrid. In fact, the Parisians were welcomed to their temporary home, the Torch Hotel in Doha, with a light show draping it in the team’s colours of red and blue for the occasion.

The PSG manager, Laurent Blanc, was impressed. “It’s my first visit to Qatar and I must say the infrastructure is wonderful here, while the excellent weather is a big plus.

“We couldn’t have hoped for more to prepare for what will be a very busy second half of the season.”

The holder of the Champions League and Fifa World Club Cup championships, Bayern Munich; their club compatriots, Schalke 04; Russia’s Zenit St Petersburg and Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg have all used the facilities of the Aspire Zone as a base for training sessions during the winter break.

“The facilities in Doha are fantastic. We have everything that we could ever wish for. The best thing about Qatar in the winter is its weather; excellent conditions for the perfect preparations,” Pep Guardiola, the head coach of Bayern Munich, was quoted as saying by Anna Lidster, a journalist based in Doha who attended several training camps.

The players were equally effusive.

“Even though I didn’t practice with the main team as I was injured at that moment, I still managed to get the most from the training camp in Doha. The team stayed at the Torch hotel, which has an excellent gym and sauna. Doha was the perfect place for me to recover from the injury and get back to the main team,” said Benedikt Höwedes, a Schalke 04 defender.

The Russian contingent was also impressed.

“Training conditions in Doha are just excellent. Perhaps, this is the best that I could ever imagine. The only down thing is that we didn’t have enough umbrellas to hide from the sun. Otherwise, everything is perfect. We liked it a lot and already thinking of coming back with the team again in February,” said Luciano Spalletti, the head coach of FC Zenit St Petersburg.

The practice sessions of many of the teams were open to the public, where they could interact with the coaches and players. “Practices twice a day were open for the public so after the practice you could easily come and ask for a picture and so on,” wrote Lidster.

What all this means to local football fans is that they get to see many of their favourite teams play, able to cheer on from the comfort of the UAE’s stadiums, while the hospitality industry gets a welcome boost on the world stage.