DUBAI // Organisers of European football's nascent Under 19 Champions League will visit the UAE this week with the aim of finalising a deal that will see the latter stages of this season's NextGen Series take place in the Middle East.
As The National revealed last year, Abu Dhabi and Qatar are both keen to be involved at some level with the highly regarded tournament, which features the youth teams of several of Europe's most illustrious clubs including Barcelona, Ajax, Juventus and Liverpool.
Now, according to Justin Andrews, the co-founder of the competition, the Middle East is almost certain to host the semi-finals, third-place play-off and final, all of which are set to take place during the final weekend of March.
"We would love to hold the finals in the UAE," Andrews, who will visit Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha as part of his trip, told The National by telephone from England. "If we can organise the right calendar dates and right stadiums and our broadcasters are happy with the timings, I think we can make it happen this year. We are close to reaching an agreement."
The NextGen Series, since its launch in 2011, has quickly grown a reputation for showcasing some of the game's brightest young talents, including Liverpool's Raheem Sterling and Glasgow Celtic's Tony Watt. Last season's final was held in London where Inter Milan defeated Ajax on penalties.
Such was the success of the tournament, this year's competition expanded from 16 to 24 clubs, with the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund registering to compete.
"Now we are at the stage of looking at host cities for the finals," Andrews said. "Abu Dhabi and Dubai are NextGen for us; they are NextGen cities: cities that are up and coming; cities that are the future. There is a definite synergy there between our football tournament and these cities in that we are both finding our feet as we look to develop."
Mark Warburton, the business partner of Andrews, said one of the primary attractions in hosting the games in the Middle East is that when the World Cup is held in Qatar in 2022, the players competing in this year's NextGen will be hitting their peak performance age. It is a factor Andrews is also quick to stress.
"In March and April, weather-wise it might be warm in the region, but these are conditions the players will have to get used to anyway," he said. "A lot of the boys coming through our tournament will be the men playing in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
"Boys of 17 or 18 and just breaking through to the first team now, they will be the main players for their national teams in 2022.
"That's important for us and another reason why we are keen to take the finals over there."
Andrews said he expects a decision to be made within three weeks.