ABU DHABI // Adel Atiq was a 14-year-old footballer in his hometown of Al Ain when a club coach asked the tall teenager to change his position to goalkeeper.
"I wanted to play any position but that one," he said. "I told them, 'No.' They told me, 'Bye-bye'."
Atiq soon was being implored by an Al Ain volleyball coach to take up that sport, and it is no small consolation for Atiq that he now plays for the UAE national team as well as the best club side in the country.
"We are the best," he said matter-of-factly.
"The fight of the players, the skills of the players, our experience, the support of the club and good coaches. That is why we are No 1."
Al Ain moved a step closer to another trophy last night by overpowering Al Nasr in three games 25-22, 25-15, 25-22 at Al Jazira's gym to advance to the semi-finals of the Zayed Cup.
Al Ain already this season have won the league and the Arabian Cup, in Riyadh, and are the holders of the Zayed Cup.
"Our team is very strong, very good," said Rostislav Chudik, a Slovakian who is in his second season as coach of the club.
"We lost only one time in the league. And if we win the Zayed Cup, then we will play for the Super Cup two weeks later."
Chudik said volleyball is the second-most-popular sport in the UAE but readily concedes it far behind the No 1 sport, football.
Only one player on Al Ain's side, the Algerian outside hitter Hisham al Ghamadi, is paid to compete for the club.
The others, including Atiq, are students or have jobs and play for the love of the sport.
"Footballers are paid very well, and people come to see them play," Atiq said.
"No one watches us play. Sometimes I wonder if I have missed a chance by not playing goalkeeper."
Chudik, however, believes Atiq could potentially play professionally outside the country.
"Italy perhaps," he said.
Atiq was part of a strong collective effort that enabled Al Ain to control their match with Nasr.
Abdullah Saif and al Ghamadi were dominant at the net.
Saif pounded 16 kills and al Ghamadi, who is 34 and has been playing professionally for 16 years, had 10.
The setter, Arif Rajeb, provided consistent service for the big hitters, and Mohammed Shamal had a strong all-round game.
"The difference was their experience," said Tarik bin Shehhi, Nasr's Tunisian coach.
"They have players, like Hisham al Ghamadi, who have been playing for many years.
They all know what they are doing. Our team is much younger."
Hosni al Karamosli, an outside hitter from Tunisia, and a professional, led Nasr with nine kills, and Rashid Ayoob, a quick-jumping left-handed Emirati hitter, had eight.
Nasr led the first game 21-20 when Saif took over, stringing together a stinging spike and two service winners to help Al Ain win the key match. "He is a very strong player, a good man and dedicated to the team," Chudik said.
"He always has great enthusiasm and is a very good motivater."
Saif declined an opportunity to speak with a reporter, as "he is shy," said al Ghamadi, "but Abdullah is a very good player with a strong mentality. He talks to us and pulls the whole team together."
The final two rounds of the Zayed Cup will be played in Al Ain next weekend. The hosts will play Al Wasl in one semi-final and the survivors of the Al Jazira-Baniyas and Ajman-Al Shabab matches tonight will meet in the other.