As the UAE takes to the pitch for the Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup in Tahiti this week, the competition offers another chance for local sporting heroes to put the country on the world map.
Young sport is a global growth story
What makes for a huge boost before attempting to accomplish something great in sport and thereby raise awareness of the UAE around the world?
Of course — it would be the unrelenting support and backing of a football-mad country. However, add to that inspirational advice from a top-notch sports professional such as the UAE national football team manager Mahdi Ali and it should be enough to drive a group of young men to achieve great things.
“Let glory, honour and pride be by your side as you embark on your assignment in Tahiti,” said Mr Ali during his visit to a training session that just such a group of young men was participating in at Al Mamzar Beach Park a few weeks ago.
“You have a moral obligation of flying the UAE flag high on the international stage. Be sure you are worthy representatives of your country.”
With the 10-day, 32-match Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup kicking off at the Tahua To’ata Stadium in Tahiti on Wednesday, the prospects of the team training that day at the beach park are looking bright with the likes of talented players such as Kamal Ali Sulaiman, Adel Ali Rahu and Rami Abdulla Al Massabi under the guidance of the Brazil-born team coach Marcelo Mendes.
And the global attraction of the sport is obvious. Tickets for the every stage of the competition were sold out by Wednesday, with only those for the group 5 stage games on September 22 still available. With a stadium capacity of 3,600 and standard tickets costing £13, tickets sales revenues alone will come in at about £1.5 million (Dh7.3m) — not a sum to be sniffed at anywhere.
The UAE national beach football team, the 2007 and 2008 Asian champions, scored 23 goals in qualifying for the finals in Tahiti. The squad is in good form, having beaten the Czech Republic and Hungary while only losing to the Netherlands on penalties in a recent tournament in Hungary.
“I think the time has come for us to qualify for the knockout phase and it’s definitely within our reach,” Mr Mendes said at the time.
Although the Emiratis have been at the Beach Soccer World Cup on three previous occasions, it will be a first if they manage to qualify to the knockout rounds. However, since the tournament began six years ago no Asian teams has ever made it to the podium, with Bahrain and Japan being the only countries coming close to a top three finish.
Iñaki Uribarri, the head of media at Beach Soccer Worldwide, a Fifa-backed company that promotes the sport worldwide, suggests only the slightest of differences have prevented the Asian teams to reach the highest places in the competition.
“In the six editions held to date on the Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup, of all the Asian countries, only Japan and Bahrain got beyond the group stage with the former making it to the semifinals in 2005, and to the quarter finals in 2009, and Bahrain [quarter finals 2006],” says Mr Uribarri.
“Every year, Asian teams play a very important role in beach soccer, and they get more and more competitive, and with Iran, Japan and UAE, the continent will have in Tahiti its most preferential representatives.”
The Emiratis will begin their campaign against the hosts — Tahiti — followed by the European champions Spain and the USA in Group A of the tournament. Although, from a perspective of traditional football, it may seem like an easy group, with the Spaniards outwardly being the only ones to be a strong opponent, that is not the case, according to Brian Murgatroyd, a journalist and broadcaster who commentates on and covers beach soccer across Europe and the world.
“I think Group B with the Netherlands, the OFC Qualifier [Solomon Islands], Argentina and El Salvador looks the most open to me,” he says.
“Tahiti at home is a two-edged sword,” he adds. “They have beaten France, the Netherlands and Switzerland but will have to deal with the expectations of being in a home World Cup with all the pressure that will bring. Spain won the Euro World Cup qualifier last year and the Mundialito this year and, in Llorenc Gomez, has one of the best players in the world. And although the USA looked modest in last year’s Samsung Intercontinental Championship in Dubai, they had won their Concacaf qualifier, which was not an easy feat.”
Mr Iñaki voices a similar notion focusing on Tahiti being a tough opponent.
“Indeed, UAE has taken part in the 2008 and 2009 editions of the Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup [held in Marseille and Dubai, respectively]. Never went beyond the group stage, though,” he says.
“And make no mistake, group A is not an easy group, as Tahiti will be a very tough team. UAE have beaten USA in their last encounters, and Spain, champions of the European qualifiers, can be earmarked as the group favourites. But yes, UAE have significant options to make it to the next phase.
The team itself has done its part — the players, coaches and the administration. The beach football community is growing. However, continued growth requires consistent support. While still in its infancy, the country?’s interest in the sport has risen at a steady pace but still has a long way to go before it can rank among the most popular.
So how does a country such as the UAE increase the support of the general public in beach football, thereby growing ticket revenues and in turn attracting more sponsorship and overseas interest?
Mr Iñaki believes the country is on the right track.
“UAE is a very active country in beach soccer. They have a powerful National League, signing some of the best beach soccer stars in the world and Dubai has become a beach soccer hot spot. After the excellent Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup held there in 2009, the emirate has been hosting one of the most exciting and prestigious events every season, the Intercontinental Cup, with the champions of every confederation,” he says.
“The UAE is doing a great job, supported by the Dubai Sports Council, and if they keep working with the same mastership and enthusiasm, the country can become one of the beach soccer powerhouses in the world.”
As such, the support from within the country needs to increase. And subsequently, growth in attendance at games, corporate sponsorships and those of its athletes and community involvement needs to increase.
For now, all eyes are on Mr Mendes and his young men as another UAE team that sets its sight on raising the profile of the country at the global stage, yet again.
Shuaib B Ahmed lives in Dubai and has written for The New York Times and afootballreport.com. He also writes about all things football at www.footynions.com.