DUBAI // Ahmed Mahmoud grew up playing football. He joined Al Ahli club at the age of 10 and represented the UAE at Under 17 and Under 19 levels and was dreaming of playing for the senior national team. A knee injury shattered his hopes, ending his football career prematurely.
After a couple of years in recuperation, Mahmoud switched to futsal and the mini five-a-side version of the "Beautiful Game" has helped him achieve his dreams.
"If you want to be famous, if you want everyone to know you, you have to play football. We all know this," said Mahmoud, who will be captaining the UAE national team at their first appearance in the AFC Futsal Championships, which start today at Al Wasl and Al Shabab.
"But we are really excited about futsal. It's a real fun game and everyone enjoys it … the players, the fans. Most importantly, I am with the national team and playing in this big tournament."
Futsal is a young sport in the UAE. The 14-team league started only three years ago and the national team was formed about 15 months ago. Mahmoud and his friends, however, were playing the game much earlier.
"We went to play in Manchester, we went to the United States," said Mahmoud, 33. They travelled at their own expense.
Just over three years ago, this band of friends heard Wasl were starting a futsal team and all of them switched to the new unit. Together, they have won seven trophies in three years, including three consecutive league and President's Cup titles.
"The same team joined Al Wasl, so maybe that's why we have more experience than the other teams who have just started," said Mahmoud. "We have been together since we were small. So we have grown up together, we started playing together."
Most of those friends will now be flying the UAE flag at the AFC Futsal Championships, where the hosts open their Group A campaign against Turkmenistan today. They meet three-time semi-finalists Kyrgyzstan tomorrow and then face the group favourites Thailand, the 2008 runners-up and South East Asian futsal heavyweights.
"Thailand are definitely the strongest team in the group and favourites to go through," said Paulo Eduardo De Jesus Pinho "Padu", the UAE coach. "Kyrgyzstan have finished fourth in three Asia Cups, so they are definitely a strong side as well and have a lot more quality than us.
"But we have been working for a year and three months and we are keen to put up a good show at the tournament. We want to show that we are moving in the right direction.
"We are going into this tournament with a lot of motivation. We have a national team for just one year now, but we have seen a lot of progress and development over the past 12 months. Now we feel ready and we want to put up a good show."
As hosts of the 2012 tournament, the UAE were assured of place in the championship, but still played in the qualifiers to gain experience. They lost 3-1 to Lebanon and were beaten 4-1 by Iraq, but finished off with a 4-2 win over Bahrain.
The players have also taken part in training camps to Spain and Turkey, where they played a few friendly matches and the progress of the squad was evident in the 5-3 win in a friendly over Qatar last Friday and the 4-0 triumph over Tajikistan on the following day.
"Qatar have had a league for six or seven years now and all their clubs have foreign players and coaches," said the coach, explaining the importance of the win over Qatar. "In the UAE, only one club has a foreign coach."
Mahmoud believes those two wins have given his team a huge confidence boost and he cannot wait for the tournament to start.
"I can say that our team now is very different to the one that played in the qualifiers," he said. "Everyone knows we have improved a lot and we play much, much better than before.
"Now we can beat teams like Qatar, who have a very strong professional league. We have beaten Tajikistan, who have appeared in the Asian Cup before. So these results have given us the right confidence boost and that is why we cannot wait for the first match to start.
"It is a tough tournament for the UAE and each and every player realises this. It is a big challenge for us, but we are confident and hope we can reach the second round. If we can qualify from the group then anything can happen. In the knockout stages, it's one match and it can go either way.
"So our focus is on making sure we qualify for the second round and then we take it from there."
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