FIFA match agent Lenar Sayfullin explains how he has capitalised on the increase in clubs and national teams visiting the UAE for camps and friendlies.
Winter trips to the UAE have become as synonymous with football as Messi vs Ronaldo debates and fantasy league frustrations. More and more clubs are travelling to the emirates to take advantage of the Gulf’s warmer climate and impressive facilities.
Residents and fans may have begun to take these football forays for granted, such is there regularity, but it is only in the past few years that the UAE has truly established itself as the go-to mid-season destination.
Russian Lenar Sayfullin is one of the men reaping the rewards of this evolution. As an official FIFA match agent – one of only two in the UAE – Sayfullin and his company SR9 Management have been increasing their footprint in a booming market.
Many clubs do still choose to go through informal intermediaries but FIFA’s seal of approval has helped Sayfullin grow his business; he has organised UAE training camps and friendly matches for the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Hamburg, and a host of Chinese Super League clubs.
“When I came to UAE, the first football training I organised was for Ukrainian club Dnipro, who played in the 2015 Europa League final. It made me see that there was an appetite for it, particularly from European clubs.
“It is a big logistical undertaking and can involve organisation of camps, matches, tournaments, transfers, training facilities, media, TV. It’s all-encompassing but the clubs and the national teams really appreciate what you do for them.”
Building strong relationships with local stakeholders has always been key for Sayfullin, who has witnessed a dramatic improvement in the sporting facilities on offer in a short space of time.
“Ten years ago when I started the business it was quite hard to get teams here because the facilities were limited and there were only one or two quality, but also expensive, places. The rest were not so good.
“But since then Dubai and Abu Dhabi in particular have invested in some great facilities.
“You have Jebel Ali, which is becoming a world class sport and football destination. They started with two pitches and now they have four with natural grass, as well as two hotels five minutes away. Every year we have at least 2-3 teams, sometimes more, stay there.
“In Abu Dhabi, they have Zayed Sports City, which hosts plenty of FIFA and AFC events. They have eight training pitches around the stadium – again there are lots of great hotels close by. Then there are some new facilities like New York University and Nad Al Sheba, which I also work with very closely.
“Other emirates like Sharjah, Ajman and Ras-al-Khaimah also have decent facilities. Some clubs prefer to stay away from Dubai because of the budget and that continued interest has prompted those emirates to improve their facilities.”
Better pitches and places to train are a key part of the UAE’s attraction but Sayfullin believes it is a triumvirate of factors that appeals to football clubs.
“Facilities is obviously key but I think the weather is perhaps the biggest draw still. Most coaches prefer to have a comfortable climate for the training – usually around 22-25 degrees in the winter. You get that year in, year out in the UAE, while other potential destinations like Turkey and Spain just don’t have the same consistency.
“Also, cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi are top tourist destinations so you see that players and staff really enjoy their free time – sightseeing and shopping. If the team comes for 10-14 days which Is a regular training camp period, they always have one or two days off so they can enjoy what is on offer.”
As well as training camps, many visiting clubs and international teams want to play friendlies to maintain their match fitness. Cue the FIFA match agent. Sayfullin has arranged plenty of the years and while it’s an extra level of organisation, he has witnessed some memorable occasions.
“Sometimes teams want privacy and to play behind closed doors; some don’t even allow us to announce where they play. But I think, generally clubs like to connect with their fans if they have fans in the UAE.
“It costs from $10,000 to $50,000 to rent a stadium from one of the local clubs, though that includes everything like police, security and ambulance for the match. Yes it’s a bigger workload, but it is great when you give fans the chance to watch their team.
“When Borussia Dortmund were here for example, we arranged a friendly against South Korean champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. I was really proud that Dortmund contacted me and we reached an agreement quickly.
“It was quite last-minute but it was a pleasure to work with such big clubs. The game was shown on local and international TV, tickets were sold and the match was really well attended.”
Sayfullin’s reputation as a FIFA match agent is such that SR9 will be a recommended provider of the AFC for the upcoming Asian Cup in January. And looking ahead, he sees the 2022 World Cup in Qatar as a major business opportunity.
“The AFC will host their pre-tournament meetings in the next few weeks and our company are the preferred agency to arrange camps and friendlies. I’ve been contacted already by several federations and I think over 50% of teams will be coming to the UAE for their camps ahead of the tournament.
“For 2022, I have already received requests too. Looking at the facilities in the neighbours of Qatar, UAE is the absolute top destination.
“Even if the diplomatic stand-off is still in place, I don’t think it’s a big issue logistically. With a stop it is still only a maximum of two-and-a half or three hours flight.
“Teams will be looking for top facilities and we have that in the UAE; I’m sure plenty of countries will be based here before and even during the World Cup and as the UAE’s FIFA match agent, that presents some great opportunities.”
At the moment, SR9’s focus is on the UAE market, as well as Eastern Europe in the summer months. But elsewhere in the region there are some exciting possibilities yet to be explored.
“From this year we will start working in the other Middle East markets, particularly in Qatar considering they are hosting the World Cup.
“It will be very hectic in the UAE in January because of the Asian Cup – most of the facilities will be taken. So I’m looking carefully to see how Qatar develops in terms of facilities and opportunities for hosting matched.
“Saudi Arabia is interesting, too. Saudi clubs love to come to the UAE for training camps and I’ve worked with Al Hilal before. I think it will still be some time before the Kingdom becomes a popular destination for European clubs as the facilities and the restrictions need to improve. But of course, there is potential there and we will keep an eye on developments.”
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