Cristiano Ronaldo’s move from Real Madrid to Juventus last summer was one of the biggest transfer stories of the decade. Juventus were not just signing a player still turning out world-class performances but a genuine global icon on and off the pitch. Ronaldo’s arrival has certainly brought a sea of new Bianconeri (Black and White) shirts to the streets of the Middle East, though some credit for this can also go the Juventus Academy UAE.
Since first launching in Dubai in September 2015, the Juventus Academy UAE has gone from having one field and three coaches to now hosting over 1,000 players and many coaches in 10 locations across Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah.
Their programme, which runs three days a week for kids aged from 4-17 years, aims to help young footballers take their first steps into the sport by providing them with a training platform devised by some of Europe’s most talented coaches.
The programmes are run mostly by Italian nationals, all of whom are Italian Football Federation and UEFA certified coaches with years of experience both in Italy and the UAE.
But with more than 50 other football academies across the Emirates, the marketplace is hugely crowded. Attachment to professional clubs, either through direct or franchise models, adds prestige but is not enough to ensure the success of academies or soccer schools.
Fabrizio Puglisi has been CEO of Juventus Academy UAE since March 2015 and believes that Juventus’ belief in, and involvement with, their Middle East outpost sets the academy apart from others in the UAE.
“There are plenty of big brands and names across the country, but the attention Juventus as a club has put on this project here is something else,” Puglisi tells Sports Industry Insider.
“Four times a year, Juventus sends an area manager to the UAE to make sure everything is run the Juventus way. Everything the coaches do at training is monitored. They have to upload training guides online which the technical director takes a look at after training. He approves them and sends them back.
“Then when the training guides are correct, they are given to the area managers to review. Juventus has five area managers around the world, one of which looks after the Middle East and comes here on a regular basis to monitor the standards of coaching and to make sure everything is running effectively.”
The Juventus model is followed in 42 countries across the world, with youngsters honing their skills in the hope of following in the footsteps of Ronaldo and Co.
The Turin-based club boasts a historic legacy – having won a record 37 Serie A titles and 11 International trophies – and has created an academy product that aims to convey values that go beyond the playing field. It seems to be working, with the Juventus Academy UAE winning Best Academy Award at the Middle East Sport Industry Awards in 2019.
Juventus Academy UAE has a team of over 40 professionals, with Puglisi insisting: “Along with my Partner Mohammed Lajam, FFG Sports Management’s Chairman, we are very careful in selecting our coaches and members of our team. We don’t just receive a CV and send coaches out on to the field to work straight away. We select, not just based on their qualifications, but their enthusiasm and passion for the job. A lot of the coaches are Juventus fans too which helps!”
With many levels of football available in the academy, young players are put at a standard that suits their ability. And with internal leagues and competitions, there are plenty of matches to help test and improve their skills.
For a select group of players, there is a further opportunity to challenge themselves against the best in the world at the Juventus Academy World Cup which takes place every May in Bardonecchia, Northern Italy. It is another example of the close ties with Turin, along with the Juventus Training Experience – another great project open to every player, with a five-day full immersion into the Juventus world.
“We have a lot of talented players and they have the chance to express themselves in the many leagues we organise. We have hundreds of tournaments throughout the year. It gives everyone the opportunity to play at their level. For the past two years, we also organise the Jlega, our internal tournament in Dubai,” said Puglisi.
“Playing is a key part of the learning process of the player. We teach them how to play and give them an opportunity to test what they learn in games.”
Despite the high demand for places and huge visibility, attracting sponsorship has still proved difficult for the Juventus Academy UAE.
“We had some support with partners in the last year and we currently have a partnership with Media Rotana. We are an award-winning academy so visibility is not a problem, but it has been difficult for everyone to bring on board sponsors this year,” he said.
While high-quality coaches and deep integration with their parent club have been integral to building and cementing Juventus Academy UAE’s reputation in the region, Puglisi admits that having a superstar like Ronaldo sporting the famed black and white kit has also been a useful marketing tool.
“Every football lover knows the importance of Juventus in the history of football. The perception of the Juventus brand for some of the kids is that it increased when Cristiano joined. A lot of the younger kids that didn’t know about Juventus because they might have supported other teams, now know more about Juventus because of Cristiano,” Puglisi says.
“But we had important growth before Cristiano. We were already established and that is because of our project excellence, not because of one player. There are many academies with a big brand around the world, but if you are not properly managed then you are not going to get players and visibility.
“Despite many challenges, we have still managed to increase our quality, numbers and locations over the last five years. We are very happy about our achievements. We are the first and only important football brand to open in Ras Al Khaimah. We run an Academy in Dubai Sports World during the summer. And we are honoured to be partners of Al Masaood Group in the capital, one of the most important in the region, to manage together Juventus Academy Abu Dhabi. We are not suffering with the increase in competition and we are still growing year on year. With my Partner Mohammed, we are very proud of what we achieved with the passion for the team we support.”