x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Hosting Fiba Under 17 World Championship a step in right direction for basketball in UAE

Hosting the Fiba Under 17 World Championship was a major step for the sport’s development in the UAE, as in a country where football is king, and where there are annual top-level events in cricket, golf, tennis and auto racing, it can be hard to gain a foothold.

A big turnout by Philippines fans helped the UAE make a good impression to organisers during the Fiba Under 17 World Championship at  Al Ahli Club in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
A big turnout by Philippines fans helped the UAE make a good impression to organisers during the Fiba Under 17 World Championship at Al Ahli Club in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National

For eight days in the middle of August, basketball was a happening thing in Dubai.

That may not seem like a grand statement, but hosting the Fiba Under 17 World Championship was a major step for the sport’s development in the UAE.

In a country where football is king, and where there are annual top-level events in cricket, golf, tennis and auto racing, it can be hard to gain a foothold. Even where there is thriving local interest in sports like jiu-jitsu and rugby, basketball, by compararison, languishes.

There is a professional domestic league, mostly featuring the same club teams that play in football’s Arabian Gulf League, with good players. A couple of former NBA players, even. Few have noticed.

Is hosting an Under 17 tournament going to markedly change things? Of course not. To quote UAE coach Zoran Zupcevic, who was addressing his team’s tournament results: “Is it going to be better tomorrow regarding the scoreboard? It will not.”

Basketball today, tomorrow and the next day will mostly remain a third-tier sport in the Emirates, resigned to pick-up games and community leagues largely fostered by Filipino and American expats.

That was the case before the Fiba Under 17s, and as well-organised as the tournament was, one tournament cannot bring a sea change.

Zupcevic also articulated what the tournament could accomplish, however.

“Basically, we are trying with the tournament to expose the community in general to basketball, “ he said.

“Why? Because we need to move forward. I believe exposing them, the community, to basketball at this level, we will be able to somehow change the mind of the people.”

It is impossible to say exactly, of course, whether any one mind was changed, but there were people at the games.

Many were from other countries, many, but some came from Dubai and Abu Dhabi and Al Ain and Sharjah, to see basketball.

They were at Al Ahli and Al Shabab for group games. Maybe they will peek in for an actual Al Ahli or Al Shabab club game in the future.

Maybe a few of the Emirati youngsters who saw the Americans flying around gyms across Dubai last week will pick up a ball with their hands, instead of their feet.

For eight days, basketball had a prominent forum in the UAE.

As UAE federation president Ismail Al Qarqawi said: “This is, we hope, not the last time we provide this kind of international basketball, but is the beginning.

“Clinics, technical, matches, whatever – we are ready and we are open to benefit from all the activity of international basketball.”

Children across the UAE are not about to start trading in their Ronaldo shirts for LeBron jerseys. But the Fiba Under 17 World Championships were not a bad place to start.

jraymond@thenational.ae

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