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01 December 2023

Football's finest train in Dubai

By John McAuley


Last month the Italian champions were here. Then the German champions followed suit. Later the best team in Russia joined them and even the South American big guns landed on our shores. So why are the world’s top football descending on Dubai?


A trawl through the guestbook at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence helps answer the question. Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp’s entry paints the picture clearly.


“Thanks for five great days. Everything has been top class. Great hotel, great training facilities and top class staff. I would recommend to any club looking for a mid-season break. We will be back.”


The memorabilia on the centre’s walls reinforce the attraction. Jerseys from Premier League stalwarts and former European champions decorate the building that has played host to some of football’s most celebrated stars. Signed photographs of Sergei Rebrov and Teddy Sheringham act as further endorsements of Dubai’s pulling power. 


With first-class facilities and weather to match, the emirate seems to provide the ideal setting for clubs in need of some mid-season reinvigoration. However, according to Mick Leonard, Academy Director at the centre, these are not the only aspects that appeal.


“Accessibility is an advantage,” he said. “It’s quite easy for the Eastern European countries to get here. There are so many teams coming now that they’re guaranteed to get games against each other, so they can actually get their mid-season or pre-season friendlies going.”


It may be a simple four-hour flight from Russia to Dubai, but the emirate has also recently welcomed teams from much further afield. South America’s Vasco da Gama and Internacional took part in tournaments at the beginning of January after travelling halfway around the world.


“In that instance the main thing was the quality that Dubai could offer,” added Leonard. “It’s an up-and-coming place, the hotels are second to none and the Jebel Ali Hotel has the Golf Resort and Spa and the Centre of Excellence. I have a massive belief that this is now one of the best training environments around.”


The facilities at the hotel certainly cater to  the needs of a professional football team. The training pitch is immaculate, something that is difficult to provide in other climates at this time of year, and the players can unwind in the gym or at the onsite golf course.


“Where I think we’ve got a little bit of a niche in the market is that this place was purpose-built with football teams in mind. Jebel Ali International Hotels knew Dubai was becoming more and more popular so they invested in this facility, letting the teams stay in the hotel or at the Oasis Beach Towers, where Portsmouth stayed last year when Redknapp wrote his remarks.”


Another plus point is that players’ privacy seems to be far more respected here than in other countries. English footballers have often been caught misbehaving away from their training camps, appearing on the front pages instead of the back pages in the tabloids back home.


“For the English teams, southern Spain used to be the preferred destination. But we all know that, with the social scene down there, players have tended to get into trouble. Here they can go out and socialise and they don’t get that kind of press intrusion. So a lot of the Premier League clubs, with the profile of the players, want to steer away from the negative publicity they sometimes get in places like Spain. I think that’s where Dubai is a cut above.”


Some would question the logic of bringing a team to Dubai as it must be an extremely expensive operation. However, the sport now boasts unprecedented riches – Deloitte estimate that club revenue for the English Premier League this season alone will exceed £1.8 billion (Dh13bn) – so Leonard doesn’t see this as a problem.


“I’m sure it is expensive but we all know, as football wages have progressed, everything has worked in tandem. With the money clubs have got to spend, they want the best and value for money. I think Dubai is still the best in that regard.”


Dick Advocaat, coach of Zenit St Petersburg, brought the Russian champions to Dubai last week and was satisfied with the decision. Speaking about the lifestyle the area promotes, the Dutchman gave another insight into why Dubai is attracting football’s big names. “Training is hard in this environment, but we can also enjoy ourselves a little bit.


Most of the players like it here because they are top professionals and international players so they are used to this standard of living. Myself? Of course, I like this part of the world very much.”


Slavisa Jokanovic, manager of Partizan Belgrade, echoes those sentiments but admits his team are here for football. “Dubai is a beautiful place but we are here to work.”


More teams are coming to Dubai than ever before, claiming its ability to offer top-grade facilities works perfectly with the celebrity lifestyle. The guestbook at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence may well see some more famous football names before the season’s out.



Teams that recently visited Dubai




­       - Austria

­       - Ghana

­       - China

­       - Iraq

­       - Liechtenstein




­       - Blackburn

­       - Bolton

­       - Portsmouth

­       - West Ham

­       - Watford

­       - Hull




­       - AC Milan

­       - Inter Milan

­       - Hamburg

­       - Stuttgart

­       - Ajax

­       - Zenit St Petersburg

­       - Partizan Belgrade

­       - Slavia Prague

­       - Red Bull Salzburg




­       - Vasco da Gama

­       - Internacional