ABU DHABI // Eight-year-old Rashid Abdullah could not believe his eyes when he walked into his school gym yesterday morning.
There stood Sultan Bargash al Minhali, Al Jazira FC's 21-year-old midfielder, a football dancing between his feet and his hair tousled just so. "He's the player who always scores on the TV," Rashid said. "Bargash, Bargash!" His chant was quickly picked up by his classmates at Al Muna Primary School.
Al Minhali was visiting the school for a morning football training session, part of its "healthy living week". Together with coaches from the International Football Academy, which runs after-school football sessions for more than 2,000 children a week in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, 75 pupils between ages eight and 11 received a crash course in how to play football. Chris Nourse, the school's headmaster, said he hoped the children would tell their parents - "the ones who do all the grocery shopping"- about what they were learning.
"We have had doctors speak to the students about healthy eating, and what makes a healthy lunchbox," he said. "We had the children buy fruits and vegetables to compete in the 'best smoothie' competition. "We are playing a 'wake and shake' in the morning, to loosen up their bodies and get them active and ready to face a day of learning." He said it was important for children to be taught early about a healthy lifestyle.
Involving Al Jazira Club and al Minhali does exactly that, Mr Nourse said, as well as instilling a feeling of community in the children. "We want the kids to feel they belong to Abu Dhabi and are part of the community, by introducing them to a football team they can care about," he said. Yesterday's event was just the start of Al Jazira's schools programme. The club's chefs, coaches, players and doctors will be touring schools all over the capital to promote healthy living.
From al Minhali's perspective, the children's excitement at his visit provided the sense of community he had hoped to find. "I'm here to get the kids to care about their health and about exercising, and to show them how enjoyable football can be: all you need is a ball and an open space to play," he said. "These kids are so impressed to have someone they consider a professional player show off in front of them by manipulating the ball, but I am the one impressed by their admiration and eagerness."
The children certainly admired the celebrity among them. Abdullah al Romaithi, nine, said he could not wait to get home and tell his brother, father, uncle, cousins and next-door neighbour that he had learnt a few football tricks from the great Bargash. "I love him because he gets the ball the most and then runs and scores," said Abdullah, who wants to be a footballer when he grows up. "I have to eat healthy so I can be as good as Sultan Bargash."