The introduction of the nation's futsal league is only the beginning, the organiser, Sarmad al Zadjaly, tells Euan Megson ahead of today's big kick-off in Sharjah.
Futsal: a whole new ball game for the UAE
It may not be as globally recognised as its glamourous 11-aside sibling, but futsal - a five-aside form of football played indoors with specialised equipment and rules - kicks off in the UAE today with the first round of games in the country's new Futsal League.
Having already staged the Club World Cup and Beach Soccer World Cup tournaments, the birth of a domestic futsal league represents the opening gambit in the UAE Football Association's drive to add the 2016 Futsal World Cup to its portfolio of Fifa hostings. Bringing the best futsal practitioners to the Gulf may be the long-term objective, but building the sport's presence at home - according to Sarmad al Zadjaly, chief executive of the UAE Futsal League's executive committee - is the more pressing goal.
"In three to five years, we want a fully professional league, this is the beginning of a journey to develop the domestic game and we didn't want to overwhelm ourselves at the start," he said. "So, at first, the league will consist of all-Emirati players." With the league's opening fixtures taking place at Sharjah Youth Centre tonight, 11 teams from four emirates will embark on a 22-week season to determine the UAE's best futsal side. But in revealing how tailored forerunner tournaments, such as the revised Sheikh Mohammed al Thani Ramadan event and November's Federations Cup, had been held during the past year to identify potential interest in the league, al Zadjaly wants more.
"Our main vision was to have all the UFL [Pro League] clubs involved, as they do in Qatar," he said. "But there is it done almost by force; every club participating in the professional league must have a futsal team. "We talked to all our national clubs but Al Jazira, Al Ahli, Al Ain and a few others had their seasons planned. They were busy with their first teams. We wanted to get 20 teams, but the financial option of starting a new futsal team was simply not there for some clubs. Salaries, kit, everything needs to be paid for.
"Although winning bonuses are being paid by most teams, the league is not fully professional and we knew it would not be easy to justify the expenditure. "After the success of the Federations Cup, [the UAEFA chairman] Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi said we needed a futsal league as soon as possible - 11 is a good number to start with." With a league to launch, one could forgive al Zadjaly for ensuring his focus rests purely on the present. For this futsal fanatic, however, who fell in love with the game while studying in the US, limiting his ambitions during pre-launch decision-making was all been about ensuring future growth.
Al Zadjaly, whose eyes light up at the merest mention of the game, is already dreaming of expansion: a national team, summer draft competitions for expatriates, even bringing a futsal World Cup to UAE shores. Nothing falls outside his realms of possibility. "Next year, with more clubs we might have two divisions with promotion and relegation between the leagues," he says. "It would be more complicated, but we could also model the league on the NBA style of conferences with knock-outs at the end - my preference, though, is divisions.
"Then there is the Asian Champions League, the Arabian Federations Championship and the GCC Futsal Championship - we want our teams in them all." It is the drive towards professionalism, however, which stretches al Zadjaly's eyes widest. The inclusion, albeit limited, of expat players in league sides, as well as the creation and nurturing of a national team to play friendlies against "major European clubs" before then challenging their global counterparts, are all achievable targets.
"In future seasons, provisions will be made to include expatriates because we need to be aware of attendances," says al Zadjaly. "In a country like the UAE, where 85-90 per cent of the population is foreign, if we don't include expats then we are targeting only 10 per cent of the people. We want to expand the footprint of futsal across the whole country and build a credible national side. "We could easily hold a training camp tomorrow to find the best 15 players and make a squad. But we want a national team which competes regionally, continentally and internationally and do this we need strong competition to bring out the best."
To ensure those best are bred, a programme to take futsal into every school hall and gymnasium in the nation has been devised. "We're focusing on developing grassroots by looking at schools," said al Zadjaly. "By working with the Ministry of Education, we're aiming to put futsal in schools from next year. To create a strong national team for 2016, we need to look at boys who are 15, 16 and 17 now; it is no good building a team of 30-somethings."
From an office in Sharjah Sports Council, al Zadjaly's futsal league has taken shape. But when asked how it was that the emirate of Sharjah came about being tasked with the responsibility of spreading futsal domestically, al Zadjaly's answer illustrated how behind-closed-doors FA discussions are transforming the multi-faceted face of UAE football. "Member federations get less voting power if they do not support and practise all the game's formats which Fifa has under its umbrella: men's football, women's football, beach soccer and futsal," said al Zadjaly.
"Men's football has always had a presence in the UAE but when Fifa decided to give their national federations the option to run all the various forms, we needed to find a place for the other three. It was decided that the three areas should be divided between the UAE's three sports councils, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, which individually oversee all the sports organisations in their cities. So because Dubai has traditionally organised the national beach soccer team and most of the players and management are based there, beach soccer went there.
"Women's football competitions have been held in Abu Dhabi for many years, so the capital took that, and we got what I believe is the best: futsal. We're ready for launch." Much to the nation's surprise, so might the UAE. email@example.com