With the UAE’s London 2012 journey well underway, Ben East takes a look at how the country is investing in its sporting reputation
When the UAE’s U-23 football team took a surprise – but wholly deserved – lead at their first ever Olympic Games appearance at Old Trafford last week, there was one Emirati who summed up their incredible journey to that point. Overage player Ismail Matar might have scored the goal, but it was the performance of midfield playmaker Amer Abdulrahman that really represented what this team is all about. This, after all, is a player who has come through every level of Emirati football, taking full advantage of the coaching available at Baniyas Sports Club in Abu Dhabi and growing into an elegant, perceptive footballer who could easily make himself at home in the English Premier League.
Even the 3-1 defeat at Wembley on Sunday against Great Britain felt like a watershed moment for Emirati sport, as for long periods of the second half UAE controlled the game at its spiritual home. So even though they qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 1990, participation in this year’s U-23 tournament at the Games feels more important: it confirmed the sense that the Emirates has produced a pool of young talent after years of investment in coaching, academies and facilities. Omar Abdulrahman (born in Riyadh but a product of Al Ain’s youth academy) is another player who looked at home at Wembley and Old Trafford, while 23-year-old defender Hamdan Al Khamali spent last season on loan at French side Olympic Lyonnais, becoming the first professional footballer from the Emirates to ply his trade in Europe.
It’s taken a long time to get to this point, granted, but the sheer presence of initiatives such as Dubai Sports World suggests that there’s not only a hunger for sport in the Emirates, but a commitment to quality coaching, too. Set up last year to both encourage stars of the future and offer a high quality indoor facility in the heat of the summer, DSW is back for 2012, offering rugby, football, tennis, basketball and cricket academies alongside a running track and international sporting tournaments. It is, of course, far too early to say what specific effect DSW is having on a new generation of Emirati sporting talent. But the fact that it exists at all is incredibly encouraging – and reflective of the commitment to sport in Dubai.
“We hope that the excellent academies we have on-site will be able to inspire the sports stars of the future,” agrees Ahmed Alkhaja, the Vice President of Venues Management at Dubai World Trade Centre. “We do work very hard with schools, universities, clubs and academies to ensure we reach new sports fans - and hopefully benefit the health and wellbeing of all sports players in the Emirates. And actually, organising international tournaments like the Dubai Indoor Football Championship, which attracted some of the big names from the global football fraternity, was really important too. It gave the local community direct access to their sporting heroes. So they were enthused by seeing top level sport - and hopefully encouraged to develop their skill-set.”
And the hard work undertaken over the past decade to promote and develop sport in the Emirates is beginning to bear fruit in sports other than football, too. Dubai attracts some of the world’s best golfers to its courses, but the game of UAE's top ranked national player Ahmad Al Musharrakh is developing nicely. The cricket team is proving that the stadia haven’t just been built to house matches between established international sides. Their achievements, says Alkhaja, contribute to the sense that Emirati sport is in an exciting place right now.
“The UAE is in a unique position in that you can practice your sport year round without having to travel elsewhere to develop your skills or compete in tournaments,” he says. “Dubai Sports Council, who are strategic partners of ours, have had a central role in developing sports at all levels. In a sense, it’s about positioning Dubai as a key sporting destination not just for those who want to visit, but for those who live here, too.”
All of which might not be of immediate succour to the unlucky UAE U-23 team. But when the time comes to prepare for the 2018 World Cup – the senior side having failed to qualify for 2014 – their experiences will not only have been invaluable, they might just have provided inspiration for a whole new generation of Emirati sports stars.