In retrospect, the question to ask is not why the UAE would be such a regional – and arguably world – player in beach soccer, but why on earth they would not?
Look around you: white sandy beaches, shimmering blue-green seas, ideal weather outside the summer months, an inclination to outdoor sports and, above all, a deep-rooted love not just for football, but for the fanciest kind – of flicks, tricks and overhead kicks.
So when he was asked a few years ago why beach soccer was picking up so quickly in the UAE, the national team coach Marcelo Mendes could only shrug and ask: “Why not?”
“I think it is the sand, the beach. You play in fantastic weather on some great beaches,” he said. “The crowd is very close to the match: you can feel the warmth coming from the crowd. This is very important. I think this is why beach soccer is very big.
“You also see some superb goals and exciting matches. It is very difficult to see a goalless draw, or 1-1. Most of the matches have three or four goals at least.”
Mendes is in Tahiti with the national side, readying them for their fourth World Cup, which begins for them tomorrow as they take on the hosts. They have never gone past the first round, but they are an Asian powerhouse, champions of the continent in 2007 and 2008, and hosts of the first four Asian Championships.
Mendes, who has been coach for seven years, has been a key figure through the story of the sport in the UAE, a story of growth as fast and swift as the progress of the game across the world but also, in a way, fitting of the country itself.
It was only in 2006 that the UAE took its first substantial dip into the sport, organising an Asian qualifying tournament in Dubai for the World Cup – though beach tournaments had been held in Dubai as far back as 2001 and had included players as famous as Eric Cantona, Chris Waddle and Jurgen Klinsmann.
The UAE formed a team in 2007 mostly of conventional former footballers, such as Bakhit Saad, the veteran defender Qambar Mohammed Ali and Ali Hassan Karim. Those last two are still in the squad. Though they did not qualify that year, the UAE Football Association signed an agreement with the Dubai Sports Council (DSC), vesting in them the authority to run the sport – the first step to organising and developing the game.
“So we began with a national team of former football players and then began to organise annual tournaments,” said Ahmed Kchaou, a DSC official. “These tournaments were held across the Emirates and it was through these that we began to unearth more talent.”
In those games – effectively open trials – they found the goalkeeper Humaid Jamal, who played with Lokomotiv Moscow last year and won the Beach Club World Cup with them, and the winger Adel Ali Rahu.
A crucial period of consolidation followed, during which the UAE began to increase participation. It helped that the infrastructure to host tournaments was already in place: the UAE hosted Asian qualifiers for the World Cup again in 2007 and 2008, winning both and qualifying for Brazil and France, respectively.
They won silver medals at the first Asian Beach Games in Bali in 2008 and the Beach Soccer Arab Championships the same year in Egypt.
The really significant event, “the big moment”, Kchaou said, was Dubai hosting the World Cup in 2009, only the second time the tournament had taken place outside Brazil.
That tournament was later described by the president of Beach Soccer Worldwide, Joan Cusco, as “the best ever” and it would lead to Dubai signing a five-year agreement in 2012 to host the annual Intercontinental Cup – the second-biggest global title in the sport.
“If you talk about beach soccer in the world and you ask people to name one city, they will say Rio de Janeiro,” Cusco said in Dubai in 2012. “But now more and more people are getting to know Dubai. If you ask which is the second-most-important city in this sport, people say Dubai.
“If you talk to the players and ask which tournament you would like to play, they will say Dubai. If you talk to the teams and ask where you want to play, they say Dubai. So Dubai has become the second home of the sport.”
Those words came soon after the end of the country’s first beach soccer league season, organised by the DSC. That first season, which began in February 2012, included 15 teams, drawn from the various sports clubs in Dubai, Sharjah and Fujairah. Dubai’s Al Ahli won the first season and, as important as it was to attract big foreign stars, it allowed the UAE to widen its own pool of players.
That season replicated the Arabian Gulf League structure, with a President’s Cup and Super Cup as well, though the former was played by eight teams and the same number of teams played in the second league season, which began in December 2012 and ended in March this year, and was also won by Ahli.
“We reduced the number of clubs in the President’s Cup to eight, to make the teams stronger and to be of a higher quality,” Kchaou said. “We decided to keep the same number of teams for that reason for the second league season.”
The calendar is beginning to look like the type that all sports need to thrive. After the World Cup, Kchaou said, will come the Intercontinental Cup in Dubai in November, then the President’s Cup and Super Cup in December and then the third season of the league and on it continues.
The next quantum leap is likely to to be driven by heroics from the national side on the world stage; much of this squad has been together since 2009 and it is a settled one, maybe even an expectant one.
“I don’t like to make predictions,” Mendes said before departing for Tahiti last week, “but our target is to progress from the first round and I think with the team that we are taking to Tahiti we have a good chance to get to the second round.
“Once there, anything can happen in one game, but first we have to try for the first time to cross the first round.”