Local challenge to Man United's Dubai Academy

When the 50 million square feet Dubai Sports City development was unveiled to investors in March 2004, the president of Dubai Sports City LLC, Khalid Al Zarooni, announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Manchester United Plc to run the permanent DSC football academy which will be attached to a multi-purpose outdoor stadium with a seating capacity of 25,000.

'We are confident,” said David Gill, ManU’s CEO, “that the evolution of this unique facility will encourage more young people to participate in football and achieve their full potential.”

Since being taken over by Malcolm Glazer, however, Manchester United’s Dubai-connection is now being touted as a means to “counter the spending power" of Roman Abramovich's Chelsea.

“We have to spread our wings as best we can to find new talent,'' Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson, said at a press conference in Dubai. “The hope of bringing on players like Beckham, Giggs and Scholes is why you invest in academies,” he said.

Having noted that the football club was setting up its first football school in the Middle East as its European fan base fell by a third in the six months to July, Bloomberg newsagency observed that the location of the academy may have something to do with Dubai's development needs rather than player talent.

“United is adding to the list of sports institutions setting up operations in the Gulf state, which offers tax breaks to attract foreign investment and broaden its oil-based economy,” it reported.

This was a point unexpectedly taken up by a Dubai media, 7Days, in its editorial, “Go ahead and dream, but United are fooling no-one” :

“Manchester United Soccer Schools (MUSS) are coming to Dubai, and for budding footballers and Dubai Sports City investors this can be nothing but good news. We’ve known for aeons that United were coming to town. But yesterday provided the first chance for the city’s media to ask: ‘Why here?’

“… If Dubai and the region around it isn’t considered a hotbed of footballing talent - and it isn’t - then what of MUSS’s other locations? Namely: Hong Kong, the US city of Seattle and - most unapologetically of all – EuroDisney …

“The question on 7Days’ lips was why on earth are United sending their coaches to places like Dubai and EuroDisney, and not a more traditional breeding ground - somewhere like Brazil perhaps?

“Ferguson had the answer, kind of. ‘The problem we’ve got with Brazilian boys is their national status,’ he said. ‘If they aren’t EU citizens then they have to be fully fledged internationals to qualify for a work permit, plus they can’t leave the country until they’re 18 …’

7Days: ‘But won’t you have a similar problem here in the Middle East?’

Ferguson: ‘Yes, it will be the same, exactly the same in fact ... But the thing is, Brazil is such a massive country so it’s pretty hard to say you could put a Soccer School in any particular area. We could always put it on the Copacabana Beach!’

“The joke hid the sinister truth … United employ a full-time scout in Brazil (who presumably doesn’t have a problem with it being such a “massive” country) whose job it is to report back if he discovers a bright prospect ... United don’t need to send a team of coaches halfway across the world in search of the next Pele - and that is not the reason they are coming to the United Arab Emirates …”
One wonders, if it is not "sinister" for the International Cricket Board to relocate to brand-new, oil-subsidised headquarters on the edge of the Arabian desert, why not global facilities of an American-owned, English football club?