Ali Al Saloom shares his insight and experiences from growing up in the UAE.
The Ali Story: Let the games begin
Every Emirati is a sports fan because they have heard their fathers, brothers, uncles or grandfathers cheer for their club.
There is a saying in Arabic that the only thing Arabs agree on is football and even then we argue about it!
My father used to tell me that the beauty of the UAE goes beyond the three words those letters represent. The Federation touched every heart, mind, company and club. The history of Al Jazeera Sports and Cultural Club is bound up in that. The areas of Al Khalidiya and Al Bateen had their own small football clubs that merged to form Al Jazeera – the pride of Abu Dhabi. It resonates with the spirit of the union.
My father played for Al Khalidiya. He was a striker, their MIP – Most Important Player – in the Sixties. His pictures are still at Al Jazeera Club and he went on to be a board member and its general secretary.
So there was no surprise in my family when sport became a passion of mine. It is inherited. But it didn’t happen as I expected.
I was about 7. I had started to play football at school and my father had taken me to Al Jazeera with him. I wanted to join so he said: “OK,” and he took me and introduced me to Captain Hassan, the table tennis coach. I didn’t understand why he brought me to him; it was only later I realised: I was very little for my age, I had health issues (my family has a history of heart problems). My father knew I was too small and too thin to play football, so he was protecting me and choosing something that would be right for me. Table tennis requires you to be fast and skilful.
That day I joined the club. You provide your passport, you get your ID and then you become a national player in a national club. That loyalty was something I didn’t question. It was inherited too.
My father had driven me from our home in Bani Yas in his beige Mercedes. I thought he would just drive me back after I’d joined. Instead, he left me there. Soon I was running, doing press-ups and sit-ups. They gave me a table tennis bat and it was bigger than my own face!
I didn’t know anyone but everyone knew who I was because I was the son of Abdulkarim. Gradually I started engaging with other boys – they are still my buddies today. Then I saw this older man – he was only in his twenties – who was the star player.
At the time he was one of the best players not only in the Gulf but also in Asia.
At a certain time we all prayed and he was leading the prayer. I’m looking at him and suddenly I realise; it all comes together. This star player, he’s our neighbour! Now I thought I’d better love table tennis! My neighbour is the great player, he’s a good man and a good Muslim.
The end of the session came and buses started arriving to go to different neighbourhoods. I watched the other boys get on board. I saw my father; I thought we would drive home. Instead, he told me I was getting the bus. I nearly cried.
But I will never forget that journey. There is a stretch of road where Abu Dhabi University is today, where one of the first graveyards in the UAE lies. As we drove past every boy raised his right hand towards it, in greeting, and said beautiful verses of the Quran as a blessing on the dead.
I had only ever seen my father do this. I didn’t know others did too. I started to feel that here was a wider family, a community, a team.
After that I played regularly. I got better but I was still unsure. One day there was a knock at the door at home. It was my coach. There was a game in Sharjah and the player in my age group couldn’t go. None of the three substitutes could go either. I was the very last choice. He asked my father if I could play. At first my father said: “No.” Honestly I was glad because in my heart I had chickened out at the prospect. Then my father thought again. He asked if I was really needed and if I was ready. Capt Hassan said: “Yes.” And so my father agreed. I was terrified.
But I learnt so much that day. I lost a game and I won a game. And the game I won secured the tournament for the team. I boarded the bus afraid but I got back on a hero!
My father had been called the “Saviour” of Al Jazeera because he famously scored a winning goal in the President's Cup Final. Now people were calling me “the little Sanqour (our family nickname)” –the same.
Over the next few years I tried other sports but I always returned to table tennis. The last time I was near to graduation and it would soon be time to say goodbye and begin my overseas travels. I wanted to go out with a win, as I had started with a win and that happened when I won the Gulf Cup Tournament.
Today, I still have my bat in a cabinet at home. Sport brought me closer to my father and it gave me a deeper understanding of loyalty and belonging. These were rites of passage and they prepared me for the next stage of my journey.