x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A celebration of diversity as the nation unites on the pitch

The place of birth of a footballer should not be an issue in a culturally diverse place such as the UAE.

The 21st Gulf Cup is over, and the UAE's national football team came back from Bahrain last week with the trophy in hand. We all celebrated their success; tens of thousands of fans travelled to Bahrain in support of what was described as "the dream team" and many more gathered around TV sets to watch the final. Winning the Gulf Cup for the second time was a historic moment for UAE football, and an achievement of which to be proud.

But what we won in the Gulf Cup is more than a title or a trophy. We saw more than just a "golden generation" of UAE footballers, and we became more than just a crowd of passionate sports fans.

The day before the final match against Iraq, as the team was preparing for the big game, a newspaper headline shocked UAE football fans and caused huge resentment.

The Qatar-based Al Sharq published an article that emphasised that Omar Abdulrahman, the midfielder for the UAE national team, was of Yemeni origin. "A Yemeni makes the Emirati football spring," the newspaper reported provocatively.

It is true that Abdulrahman is of Yemeni origin, and that he was born in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Several years ago, he turned down a deal to play for Al Hilal, a top team in the Saudi professional league. Instead, he chose to move to the UAE and to play for Al Ain club and he and his family were granted Emirati citizenship.

The 21-year old was selected as the best player in the Gulf Cup, because of his great skill and his performance throughout the tournament. No one would question his special talents for a player of his age.

Even though he is not Emirati by birth, Abdulrahman's outstanding play all through the Gulf Cup made him the hero of the UAE team. In five matches, he scored two critical goals for the UAE, and made many assists.

That provocative statement by the Qatari newspaper came as a shock to Emiratis (and the paper did later apologise). After the insensitive story appeared, the nation stood in solidarity with Abdulrahman. This included leading public figures, media personalities, prominent football fans and many ordinary supporters. Football has helped in uniting the UAE's society against an irresponsible comment. "Omar is our son" said one poster carried by Emirati fans during the final game.

It is not unusual in sport for GCC teams to search outside their own country for talented athletes, and to grant them citizenship and provide them with all kinds of support if they will make the move.

Diversity is a strength in sport. France is a case in point: their 1998 football team that won the World Cup - for France's first and only time - was a colourful mix of players from many backgrounds. The wide range of their talents and skills contributed to their success as they became the world champions.

This goes well beyond football. Cultural diversity has helped many countries, including the UAE, to develop and move forward. People with varied backgrounds, cultures and experiences all bring with them their unique perspectives and approaches, and a wealth of creative and innovative ideas and talents.

Multiculturalism also builds tolerance and understanding, which is a basis for a cohesive and a peaceful society. It helps to combat racism and negative stereotypes.

When the UAE team won the final match, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, called Abu Dhabi Sports channel to congratulate the team and the whole nation for the achievement. "We don't differentiate between our sons," he said. "They are all the same at the end."

The UAE players come from varied backgrounds, but they are equally Emiratis and they all contributed to winning the 21st Gulf Cup. This young team is a microcosm of UAE society at large: a society that is multicultural and diverse. They can teach a lesson or two to everyone; not only a lesson in football, but also a lesson in life.



On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui