Al Jazira, the Pro League club, are helping a schools league in Abu Dhabi and, at the same time, recruiting young fans who already are helping their attendance record at home games.
Al Jazira lend a hand at schools
It seems a perfect partnership. Abu Dhabi schools have a co-ordinator to run their football league and provide facilities, instruction and even transport to and from matches. And Al Jazira, the Pro League club, get a host of potential new fans.
Al Jazira Schools Football League consists of 75 teams of boys and girls from 13 schools in various age groups. Matches are played each Monday and Wednesday at Jazira and Zayed Sports City, and at three of the schools involved - the British School Al Khubairat (BSAK), Al Yasmina International School and Al Raha International School.
"The response has been overwhelming," said Mazin Abusin, the marketing consultant of the club and co-ordinator of the schools league.
Ross Barret, the coach of the Pearl Primary School teams, was at Jazira yesterday with more than 60 children from his school's four teams.
"It is a wonderful opportunity for the kids," he said. "We have around 120 nationalities [in the league] and football brings them together. They just love to be out there and playing."
Ian Pugh, the coach of Al Muna Primary School, said his players eagerly await the games each week. "The first question they ask is when our next game is," he said.
Murad Adip, an 11- year-old from Pearl, said he wakes up earlier than on a normal school day when he has a game to play.
"It is my best school day of the week because that's when I can use all my training skills," said Adip, who is from Turkey. "I have played football ever since I started walking, that's as far as I can remember.
"I train every day of the week and when there is no training at school I go to the Khalifa Park with my parents for a training session with them."
Mike Edgar, the director of sports at BSAK, said a schools league was formed four years ago, but it was only this year that Jazira began co-ordinating the league. "Jazira were looking to strengthen their profile within the Abu Dhabi community," he said. "A great way of doing this was by offering their facilities, resources and season tickets to the football playing schools within Abu Dhabi."
It is a two-way relationship. Schools bolster the crowd at Jazira's home games and students sometimes serve as mascots, and the club has sent players and officials to the schools for assemblies and clinics.
Some of the team's players have visited the schools, including Ibrahim Diaky, the captain; Bare, the Brazilian forward; Matias Delgado, the Argentine midfielder; and the UAE internationals Ali Kasheif, Subait Khater, Saleh Obaid and Sultan Bargash al Menhali.
The players attend coaching sessions and talk to students about the benefits of sports, health issues and eating habits.
"The schools are the most important area for both, to unearth talent as well as create a strong fan-base for the club," said Diaky, the team's top scorer. "The schools league ... is an excellent foundation for the sport. Who knows when a star player would emerge from such competitions?
"And more important are the benefits it brings to the youth. It is a great recreation as well as a fitness scheme for them."
He said the benefit to the club is obvious on match days. "We see schoolchildren, parents and the staff come to cheer us," he said.
Edgar said the league hopes to organise a cup competition in the third school term, with the final being played on the main pitch at Al Jazira.
There are 13 schools in the league now, and Edgar said that number will grow if more schools can commit teams to regular after-school fixtures with the backing of their administration and PE department.
"It is vital that we are able to improve the organisation, communication and participation of all concerned for the leagues to prosper next year," he said.
"These aspects are already under discussion between the schools and Jazira to ensure that the leagues develop positively in the future."
In addition to football matches, the schools have access to the club's indoor and outdoor facilities for their sports days and for other sports functions.
Abusin said about 60 per cent of the crowd at home matches come from the schools. Jazira recorded the highest attendance for a single game with 28,146 and they have the best average turnout at 18,642. "It has picked up well and created a bigger fan base for us," he said.