AC Milan unveil ambitious plans with new Dubai base 'a key pillar of growth'

Club chief executive Giorgio Furlani talks to The National about the Serie A giants' future, the rise of Saudi football and more

AC Milan chief executive Giorgio Furlani and Mohammed Ibrahim Al Shaibani, director general of the Dubai Ruler’s Court, and managing director of the Investment Corporation of Dubai. Photo: AC Milan
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AC Milan view Dubai and the Middle East as “a key pillar of growth and of our strategy going forward” in ensuring success on and off the pitch, as the club launched a new base in the emirate.

The 19-time Italian champions officially inaugurated Casa Milan Dubai on Sunday night at ICD Brookfield Place in Dubai International Financial Centre.

The venture, described as Milan’s home in the Middle East, represents the club’s first office in the region and only their second outside Italy, alongside Shanghai. They are also the first Italian club to open an office in the Middle East and North Africa.

Currently third in Serie A, Milan have a long-standing connection to the UAE, with Emirates airline a principal partner after first collaborating with the club in 2007. The airline has been the club’s lead shirt sponsor since 2010. Meanwhile, Siro, part of the Dubai-based Kerzner group, serves as Milan’s official hotel partner.

“Opening this office is a very important step for us in our forward-looking journey," Giorgio Furlani, Milan's chief executive, told The National. "If you go back 10 years ago, we've had a period of some difficulty as a club, as a company, and on the field we went through a process of turnaround and streamlining and changing of strategy that started about five years ago.

“And then, last year, under the guidance of our new controlling shareholder, RedBird Capital, we've embarked on this new process of continuous growth and, we hope, success on and off the field. So the Middle East as a region, and Dubai in particular, are very important to us."

Furlani added: “They are a key pillar of growth and of our strategy going forward. We’ve had a relationship with the region and with Dubai for a long time.

"We've been partners with Emirates, the airline, since 2007 and we're incredibly happy with, and incredibly grateful for, our partnership with them. And it's ever growing and improving. So much so that, over the years, we've also expanded our partnerships with other companies and institutions in Dubai.”

Milan, winners of the scudetto most recently two seasons ago, have been regular visitors to the country since partnering with Emirates. In December, when domestic football paused for the 2022 World Cup, they competed in the Dubai Super Cup together with Liverpool, Lyon and Arsenal.

Within the region more broadly, Milan’s longest-running academy is located in Kuwait, while according to American information, data and market measurement firm Nielsen, the club are the most-supported Italian team in the Middle East and Africa. Nielsen estimate that fan base to be upwards of 35 million.

Furlani said Milan hope that, through the Dubai office, they can tap into football's rapidly growing popularity in the region.

“There's huge potential because it is a region that is football hungry,” he said. “You see it all over, really. There's this love for football and this staunch passion that’s so obvious. It feels like being in Italy sometimes.

“And that's the basis for everything we do. If we're in a region where people don't care about football, then it's hard for us to really drive a linkage or allegiance to our colours and to our brand. So, because of that underlying passion, this is a great opportunity.

“It's also rooted in history. There are what I'll call cultural, historical commercial linkages between Italy and the Middle East and certain brands, and I think we play well, or can play well, in that kind of trend.

“We want to engage with the fan base and with the local community. But we also want to grow it and be more and more ‘local’ shall we say.”

As for Milan having more of a physical presence in Dubai, particularly with regard to increased first-team visits, Furlani said: “Opening an office comes with expectations of being active. We have had many visits, either as an entire team – the training camp we did last winter – or a subset of management, coaching staff and the players in ad-hoc situations.

AC Milan to open office in Dubai

AC Milan to open office in Dubai

“In terms of doing more in friendlies or training camps every year, there's the global football schedule that is set by the regulators. So depending on the year, depending on what international events there are, depending on where we land in terms of European competitions, every year will be a bit of a different story.

“But there's definitely an intention to be here more often; be ‘eventful’ in the sense with various events and with a lot of travel back and forth between Milan and Dubai.”

Asked what would constitute success for Casa Milan Dubai, Furlani added: “Let's say I wake up in three, five years, and what would I have to see to be able to say, ‘Wow, this has really worked out, even beyond our intention’, is, number one – having grown our fan base.

“And number two – having expanded the number of our partnerships in Dubai and the region. And I would say a softer and less quantifiable [indicator], if you want, which is being seen and known as the football club in Dubai."

Furlani, a graduate of Harvard Business School who was appointed Milan board director in 2018 before transitioning to chief executive last December, has been a keen observer of the recent rise of Saudi Arabian football.

The Saudi Pro League, backed significantly by the Saudi government, has become one of the most prominent stories in football as it embarks on a bold ambition to develop into one of the top-five domestic leagues in the world.

While some lead figures from the game's more established leagues have raised concerns about the rise of the SPL and, in particular, its aggressive spending, Furlani said: “If you look at it in purely economic terms, if there's a new player in the market and they have new ideas and want to invest capital in the market, that has to be a good thing.

I see what has been done in Saudi as a big and ambitious project, and one that's going in the right direction
Giorgio Furlani

"There have been some, let's call them complaints, in the European football industry that I would define as protectionist. I see what has been done in Saudi as a big and ambitious project, and one that's going in the right direction. There will be teething issues, but that's normal.

"So, in terms of Vision 2030 and strategies to be a big league that is relevant and becomes top five, I think that is achievable and that will be achieved.”

In response to those within football who consider the SPL a threat to other leagues, Furlani said: “Again, I think it's seen as a threat on what I'll call protectionist grounds. I think it's innovative and it's something that is admirable, what they're trying to do.

“And, look, it’s a new competitor that some people will say is better funded and hence it's a ‘threat’ in terms of the race for talent. But that's how open markets operate. Trying to defend against them is the wrong attitude.”

Nevertheless, Furlani said Saudi’s arrival as a major player in the transfer market, while not making his mission at Milan more difficult, has prompted clubs to adjust their practices in some ways.

“The rise of a new market participant means you need to account for that, and you might need to do things differently because it's in reality,” Furlani said. “But I wouldn't call it more difficult. I would say something to be incorporated, if you want, in how we think about things and how we do things.”

Updated: November 14, 2023, 5:13 AM