We are always curious about how talented expat football professional’s (not athletes) who are invited to the United Arab Emirates by the various Arabian Gulf League clubs felt about their time in spent here. Some have left the country on a positive high and some with an undesirable outlook, and this is all based on what the statements of the respected individuals in the press abroad.
We were able to catch up with one talented and respected individual who spent some time in the UAE imparting his knowledge on local Emirati talent in an attempt to enhance local football. Norwegian Fitness expert Tor Thodesen arrived at Baniyas, based in Abu Dhabi, in the winter of 2013, after being highly recommended by NTNU’s established professor Dr. Jan Helgerud.
So here is how he ended up at Baniyas:
“Sort of a long story! The Sports Committee at the club felt that the club needed to develop the fitness level of the team. They contacted Real Madrid to ask if they had anyone who could help in this area. The Head of Medical department in Real Madrid then recommended the club to contact one of his colleagues, Dr. Jan Helgerud who is a Professor of Sports Physiology. He then went to Baniyas and performed a full test battery on the first team, including stamina, speed and strength. Unsurprisingly, the tests showed the team had a lot to gain on focusing on these areas. They tested approximately 15 – 20% lower than European Champions League teams in both endurance and strength and a little lower in speed.When Baniyas asked how they could improve their results, Dr. Helgerud recommended they bring in a coach who is familiar with his training methods. I have used Dr. Helgerud as a consultant in my work for many years and he pointed them in my direction.”
As expected, it is never an easy task for a support staff to join a team in the middle of the season and see instant results. Such was the issue in the case of Tor who also had to go through a Managerial change during his short stint at the club.
“I was brought in as an assistant coach specialising on the fitness level of the players. The Sports Committee considering the fact that the Head Coach had an existing support staff at his disposal did this. As I came in half way through the season, I was aware that my influence would have to come gradually. The team was playing games in several competitions. I focused on getting to know the philosophy of the Head Coach and the methods of his team while helping players on an individual level, both who wanted to work on individual development and those who were coming back from injuries. After a few weeks, the Head Coach and his team were let go and I worked the rest of the season as an assistant coach under a local caretaker – Salem Al Orfi.”
His first obvious difference as compared to the norms in Norway had to be amount of players involved.
“Baniyas had around 35 players in first team training at the same time. It looked a bit chaotic. I felt that they did not individualise the training enough and that the best players, the regular starters in the first team suffered from this.”
And then there is the lingering question about professionalism in the Middle East, among top management as well as among players. Maradona had ranted about it during his time as a manager at Al Wasl, among the many who had done so in the past. Was Baniyas any different? Tor wisely sets the tone as he talks about the issue relating the players.
“First of all, one should be careful to generalise, as people are individually different in all cultures. I was hoping for more hunger to develop both as team and as individuals – players going the extra mile to improve themselves. I think this is because the society is so protected. I see the same here in Norway; we are not used to fight really hard for anything in life. As a coach you have to work on finding what makes each individual motivated, what button to push!”
Thoughts on top management?
“People with good intentions but lack of specific football competence ran Baniyas, which made for many challenges. They have since then established the role of Sporting Director. This is a huge step in the right direction for the club.”
The country, definitely, does not lack in talent however it’s harnessing the talent into something tangible is the challenge.
“When I see Arab kids playing I get the feeling that there is a good base for developing ball skills.”
Many of the young players are talented with the ball at their feet. The challenge is to develop further the work ethics, the physiological side and collective spirit on the field. So could any one of them have the potential of playing in Europe?
“I don’t see why not! Again, it comes down to really wanting it. Leave a protected environment to chase a dream – and possibly go through hardship to get there.”
Now that Tor had experienced what it was like to work in UAE football, would he recommend it, if any of his colleagues from Norway were to ask about a potential role in the UAE?
“I recommend anyone to go abroad for coaching. In addition to meeting new people, getting to know different cultures you also learn things about yourself. When you come to a new club and a new culture there will always be something new, something different. I try not to be annoyed of things but rather learn and then discuss the why/why not’s.”
And if given the opportunity, would he return to the UAE, let say back at Baniyas or any another AGL club?
“Yes, for sure. Would love to go back some time in the future. Either there, any other Asian or African club.”
Tor also had the opportunity to work with one of the MENA region’s top player – Egyptian – Mohamed Aboutrika and Tor had nothing but kinds words to describe the legend’s demeanor on and off the pitch.
“All though he was maybe not as his best at the end of his carrier he had a huge impact, both on and off the field. On the field he gave the team calm and confidence, off the field he was a true professional in all his ways. He showed the younger players how to prepare, how to treat each other and how to behave towards all people you meet, from staff and groundsmen to fans and children. All ways taking time for pictures with fans, stopping and talking polite to everyone who wanted a piece of him.”
Since leaving Baniyas at the end of the 2014 season and returning back to Norway, based on all the above, it sounds like Tor witnessed a positive experience in the country. Certainly, there are situations that one would imagine to be favourable however with differing cultures comes different ways of doing things, and it is those who are open-minded enough to keep up with the nuances and adapt can prosper in these situations.
To end it with Tor’s happiest moment in the role?
“Winning the Gulf Club Championship (GCC) as it was the clubs first title in over 20 years.”
Would like to express my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to Tor Thodesen for his insights on Baniyas.
PS: Tor is currently heading a Norwegian football youth academy in addition to commenting on German Bundesliga games on television in Norway.