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From Ghana national team to Condado FC, Omar Al-Duri’s coaching journey continues on fields of Dubai

“None of us are Ronaldo, so don’t stand around like Ronaldo,” the coach said.

A few of the players chuckled, but most were too tired.

It’s a warm Wednesday evening, and Omar Al-Duri is putting the players of Condado Football Club, a team that plays in the UAE’s Expat Football Association league, through fitness drills at Jebel Ali Resort.

The session comes a few days after the team had lost its second match of the season, having won the first. Al-Duri, in the job for just a a few months, expects a reaction from the players.

And though this is a significant change of environment for the international coach, he will treat his players with all the respect he reserves for professional players. As long as they reciprocate.

Iraqi-British Al-Duri has an impressive CV, having been part of the Ghana national team technical staff, an English FA-certified coach in the UK and the coach of the UAE national women’s team.

Now, he is training to get his certification from the Welsh Football Association, and part of his course is implementing coaching techniques during the sessions with Condado.

The players seem to have taken to their new coach, who has worked with top international players on an individual basis as well.

When he took over, one of the first things he worked on improving was the mentality of a group of players who remained more a collection of individuals than a team.

“They were all individualistic,” he said. “Everyone wanted to take a freekick. Everyone wanted to take a penalty. Everyone wanted to score. For me, and the captains had told me this themselves, everyone was in it for themselves. My job was to create the right environment and atmosphere for them to enjoy their football without thinking only me, me, me.”

“I start by putting myself in the mix with them, so that’s really important coming into a new team,” Al-Duri said. “Some of them have been together, some of them haven’t, and you haven’t been with any of them. You can’t come in and change everything if you don’t understand what you’re working with.”

Mohammed Hajjar, team founder and captain, recalls the early days of Condado, when it was little more than an after-work get-together to let off a bit of steam and have fun. It would take a long time, and several aborted coaching experiments, before anything resembling a functional team would take shape. And most of the improvement has come recently from “coach Omar,” as all the players call him.

“We started the team with bunch of friends, we said let’s go play 11-a-side,” he said. “We entered a league that was on Al-Ain road, and we were being smashed 7-1, 8-1. And then we started getting better and better but we were never a team, and this is where we decided to get coach Omar on board; I’d heard a lot about him, about what he’s done in his career.

The team has attempted several transformations since 2017, when Hajjar had launched it after being smitten by watching community teams play in Italy.

Mentally, physically and technically, Al-Duri brought rapid improvement.

“First of all, he brought leadership,” said Hajjar. “For me it was very hard to be a coach and captain, to play and coach. So the leadership and authority was very important and that’s what he’s brought. But not only that, he’s introducing things off the field as well. He’s an inspiration. I only knew him for a few months but I knew he was a big inspiration for me. He’s getting things out of the players that they didn’t know they had inside them.”

Beyond the regular fitness and tactics drills, Al-Duri has introduced his players to breathing techniques at Iceman and training sessions at Real Boxing Only Gym to improve team spirit.

Has it translated to the pitch?

“Yes,” Al-Duri said. “Because they’re fighting for each other. It is it easier to impart the tactical stuff once they’re on the same page.”

Al-Duri is also a radio and podcast presenter, and the author of the book “Reset,” which tackles five “domino effects” that will help to improve mental health, something he sees as being as important as physical well-being.

In his presence, he wants his players to be at ease.

Al-Duri had kicked off his training session, as he always does, with what he calls the “ice-breaker,” a light-hearted run-around with instructions to jump on a teammate’s back at the sound of the whistle. After that, as the players go through stretching exercises, he calls on them to give feedback on the latest performance.

“That’s the point of the debrief,” he said. “Once we get back to training,  we have a little ice-breaker, we do something that’s going to get them joking and laughing. And then when we start to stretch, we ask around. Don’t tell me what you thought went wrong, tell me what you did wrong. How can we make that better, how can we learn from that, and then what are the positives?”

It is cathartic for him and the players, and the idea is that no negativity spill over into the technical work that follows, or indeed into the next match.

A few days after the session, Al-Duri is downbeat after a narrow 4-3 loss in which his team had led 3-1. Defeats do not bounce off him easily.

“I’m trying to rack my brain about a couple of things, I’ve got a couple of books right in front of me now,” he said. “One is the Marcelo Bielsa book and the other one is the ‘Coaching Transition Play’ book, with Pep, Klopp, Ranieri, Mourinho and Simeone on it.”

He’s obsessing over some decisions he took the previous night, some which worked, other which didn’t.

Facing inverted wingers who like to cut onto their natural foot, he countered that by inverting his own wingbacks. It worked to a point, but an already-depleted squad ran out of steam as four players pulled up with more injuries.

It is an accepted part of amateur football that family and work commitments will force players to pull out at short notice. Al-Duri is understanding but does not use it as an excuse. Above all, he is not happy about it, though any feedback or criticism is always collective and no player will be called out in front of his teammates individually.

“I take pride in managing people, and treating people fairly, but I wasn’t going to humiliate anyone in front of everyone else to make a point,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be humiliated in front of everyone, but then again some of their actions haven’t done them any favors.”

Treating the players as adults is a big part of coaching, Al-Duri believes. It makes criticism easier to face.

“Yesterday one of the players came up and said ‘thank you’, and I said, for what? He said for helping us out,” Al-Duri said. “I said it’s my job, we need to put these actions into results. Zaki (his center half) called me today and said I can’t sleep, and I thought it was from the injury, but he said no, it’s from thinking about the game. And I said good, because neither could I.”

“They gave it their all, I just don’t have time to waste on people who aren’t going to do that.”

Vice-captain and co-founder of the team, Omar Bitar, says that they now have an identifiable style of play.

“The biggest thing is everyone knowing their role, not doing more or less than that,” he said. “That gives us an objective when we play in terms of the formation, in terms of the type of players on the pitch. And it really gives everyone a key role to play. If everyone plays to their potential in those key roles, then we will play as unit, as a team. And we have been seeing this. He’s really been pushing us in terms of the fitness, and in terms of the tactics and how we play.”

The first defeat of the season revealed a different side to Al-Duri.

“We saw a side of Omar that we hadn’t seen in our first game,” Bitar said. “We didn’t have the best performance and he made us realize it. This is exactly what we need. Yes, we are here for fun, but it’s a good mix between fun and seriousness. It’s a fine balance and people need to be fine with this balance because we are here to have fun, we want to smile and laugh and enjoy our time, at the end of the day this is happening after our day-to-day jobs. But at the same time we want to get something out of it for self-accomplishment. We want to see us gel as a unit, we want to see us get the results.”

The words would be music to Al-Duri’s ears.

“I look at the top elite coaches, and they are on overdrive,” Al-Duri said. “Except they see their players six days a week. I don’t, so I have to condense that information, which then doesn’t appear like information overload, but at the same time they’re able to comprehend what we’re doing, and then build it as a habit. That’s why I beat myself up about it sometimes.”

The results are inconsistent, which irritates Al-Duri.

It is almost 3pm the day after the match, and a new online course with the Welsh FA is about start. More lessons, ideas and coaching drills to try out at Condado’s training session.

Bit by bit, Al-Duri is finding the right balance with players for whom football is a big part of life, but not necessarily the most important.

“I need them to switch on to game mode,” he said. “I don’t know how their day has gone, not everyone is going to message me and tell me that they had a bad day, or a good, or family issue.”

“So I will make sure that we are locked on the same thing,” Al-Duri said. “That is, when we’re together, football first.”

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