x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Manchester United's search for the Gulf's next Ali Al Habsi

Children in Abu Dhabi are taking advantage of some expert coaching as Manchester United Soccer Schools open their specialised clinics at the Dome@Rawdhat.

Gina Cantelmi, 10, right, loves playing in goal. Here she is listening to instructions from goalkeeper coach Andy Dickson.
Gina Cantelmi, 10, right, loves playing in goal. Here she is listening to instructions from goalkeeper coach Andy Dickson.

Ali Al Habsi is the first player from the Gulf to play in the English Premier League, and the Omani is not just making up the numbers.

The 29-year-old goalkeeper recently transferred from Bolton Wanderers to Wigan Athletic for a fee that could rise to £5 million (Dh29,521m), making him one of the most expensive goalkeepers in English football.

In Abu Dhabi, the search for the next Al Habsi is gathering pace. Manchester United are holding the UAE's first dedicated goalkeeping training camp this week at the Dome@Rawdhat as part of their Soccer School.

Rashid Zim, a 15-year-old Abu Dhabi schoolboy, is among the 20 youngsters, a third of which are Emiratis, taking part.

"I like shouting at people so maybe that is why I have chosen goalkeeping," Rashid said. "I like organising the defenders and love stopping opposition strikers from scoring goals.

"All of my friends want to be a striker, but I like the responsibility of being a keeper. I think I'll stick with this position."

His passion for football, and goalkeeping in particular, is shared by Gina Cantelmi, a 10-year-old girl who attends Al Yasmina School.

"The training camp has been great because I needed the practice over the summer," Cantelmi said. "I play in midfield as well, but I wanted to see what it was like to be a goalkeeper. I'm a bit of a football fanatic.

"It's been interesting to find out how much you rely on your feet as well as your hands. I didn't know that. It can hurt a bit more when you dive or get hit by the ball, but that doesn't bother me, and I also don't mind being the only girl. I like showing the boys how it's done."

At the professional level, the chances of the UAE producing a goalkeeper who might one day play in England are increased because the league requires each team to field an Emirati goalkeeper.

Their development is helped by the coaching they receive at their clubs from the likes of Tony Coton, the goalkeeping coach at Al Ahli who worked with Peter Schmeichel, Fabien Barthez, Ben Foster and Edwin van der Sar at United.

"I have been pleasantly surprised by the overall standard of goalkeeping in the UAE," Coton said. "Not one individual has stood out for me as each keeper has played well in the games I've seen.

"I have tried to implement the need for competition for the jersey: if you have it make sure you hold on to it, and if you want it do everything you can to get it and not to accept someone else has it."

Coton is building on the work first implemented by John Burridge, who was the goalkeeping coach at Al Ain when they won the Asian Champions League in 2003.

Burridge, who played 771 league games for 29 British teams, also taught Al Habsi, whom he discovered at the age of 16 when working with the Omani national team.

"Goalkeepers aren't footballers and that's what people need to understand," Burridge, a Dubai resident, said. "We are actually handball gymnasts. The problem here in the UAE is that nobody wants to play in goal. Everyone wants to score the winner because everyone wants to be a footballer."

The youth camp run by United is based on the training methods used by Van der Sar, the Dutch goalkeeper who retired at the end of last season.

"The drills the kids are doing are very similar to how Edwin prepared himself and he was the best in the business," Adam Jones, the co-ordinator of the Goalkeeping Residential Course at Manchester United Soccer Schools in Britain, said.

"We are doing sessions that are technical and then at the end working in the goals themselves so they get a chance to put all they have learnt into a game.

"I have been really impressed so far by the quality of the goalkeepers who are out here. What the kids here need is to spend more time working on the different aspects of what makes a goalkeeper.

"It's not just about stopping the ball. We get them concentrating on footwork and having an understanding of the many different roles a keeper has."

Jones is a Uefa qualified goalkeeping coach with a degree in Science and Football.

"I'm told not everyone out here in the UAE is desperate to be a keeper and, in fact, in England it was always the lad who wasn't too good outfield who got put in goal," Jones said. "A lot of teams, and I'm talking about big teams, really underestimate the importance of having a good goalkeeper. It can make-or-break a season.

"I know this sounds obvious but they are the last line of defence and if your keeper can't catch a ball then what chance do you have of winning anything? They also are the ones who see absolutely everything and the better keepers are also great organisers."

Burridge said he would like to lend his expertise once more to the country's top shot-stoppers. "Majed Nasser, at Al Wasl, is a terrific goalkeeper and someone I could see moving aboard and playing in a big league," Burridge said.

"He's that good. The biggest problem we have here in the UAE is that keepers get a lot of criticism, even the best ones. You make one mistake and everyone is on your back. I thrived on the pressure, but some of the UAE lads find that difficult to accept and cope with."


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