Football’s popularity has exploded in the United Arab Emirates since the turn of the century. Al-Abyad (The Whites) have hired coaches such as Henri Michel, Roy Hodgson and Dick Advocaat, while they won the Gulf Cup of Nations for the first time in 2007 and repeated the feat this year; Al Ain became the first Emirati team to win the AFC Champions League in 2003 and reached the final again two years later; the Abu Dhabi United Group took over Manchester City and bankrolled them to the English title; and the UAE Pro League has attracted on to its fields and into its dugouts the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Asamoah Gyan, Diego Maradona and David Trezeguet.
Furthermore, the country has revelled in hosting four global tournaments: the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2003, when Ismail Matar outshone the likes of Dani Alves, Andres Iniesta and Javier Mascherano to seize the adidas Golden Ball and helped United Arab Emirates exceed all expectations and reach the quarter-finals; the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup six years later; and the FIFA Club World Cups of 2009 and ’10, which showcased, among others, Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Leandro Damiao, Lionel Messi, Juan Sebastian Veron and Xavi.
Now the Arabian Peninsula nation is gearing up for its next big event: the FIFA U-17 World Cup, which kicks off on 17 October. With football fever reaching grand heights, the Local Organising Committee (LOC) for UAE 2013 spoke to a selection of youngsters from local academies about the sport.
“I starting playing football when I was three,” revealed Tom Drake, an 11-year-old left-back from an academy in Dubai. “My dad took me to the park and I just kicked a ball around. I started playing that way.”
Striker Jordan Adetiba, ten, added: “I started playing football when I was about three or four. I saw it on TV and I thought it was pretty cool, so I just asked my dad if I could do some camps and I started playing then.”
Jordan’s response was immediate when asked which players inspire him: “Cristiano Ronaldo, because he’s really skilful and he encourages me. I watch his videos on YouTube and I try and copy them as well. His footwork is really good. Neymar is really skilful too.”
Vansh Nikhil, another aspiring forward, is also a member of the Real Madrid and Portugal atatker’s fan club. “Ronaldo uses his skills, he’s fast and a good player.”
Tom biggest inspiration comes from someone who was a teenager until last month. “Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain,” he said, “because he reminds me of a player that has a lot of heart, works hard and is strong on team-work.”
Another youngster who loves playing the beautiful game is defender Utsav Bhatia – and he even reserves his favoured footwear for important games! “I have lucky shoes I always wear for matches,” he explained. “When I usually go to play with friends I don’t wear them and I never play properly. But when I go for training I always where these shoes and I play really well.”
As well as playing the sport, children in the United Arab Emirates revel in going to a stadium to watch a game. Hamdan Adil, a goalkeeper from an academy in Abu Dhabi, is certain locals and tourists who do the same during the FIFA U-17 World Cup are in for a treat.
“It’s very exhilarating to watch a match here,” said Hamdan. “There is a lot of noise and signing.” Utsav added: “It is really cool. There are many people at the stadiums, it’s noisy, and there are a lot of football chants.”
A few were in agreement when asked which potential match they’d like to see at UAE 2013. "Definitely Brazil-Argentina playing in Al Ain!” said centre-back Aditya Bhatia. “I’d watch it with my family and friends.” Hamdan remarked: I want to see the rivalry between Argentina and Brazil. I’ll be cheering for Brazil and UAE.”
Tom is also hoping to see that South American showdown in the knockout phase, though he won’t be taking sides if it does transpire: “They are probably the two best teams in the tournament. I like how they both play and I think it would be an interesting match. I want to watch a good match, but I’m not going to support one team.”