The recent junior varsity Middle East and South Asia Conference football championships in Abu Dhabi promoted an American-style system of youth sport aimed at making the experience special for children involved.
Melting pot of cultures seen at football championships
ABU DHABI // The young players sported football strips of all colours, each shirt embroidered with the crest of their local high-school. The green kits belonging to the American Community School (ACS) of Abu Dhabi displayed surnames on their backs.
The "soccer moms" sat proudly on the sidelines of Cramer Field, while the dads, having stood screaming during play, threw their arms around their children on the final whistle.
Congratulations and commiseration arrived in equal measure.
"It's very much an American system," said Kevin Brawn, the head of athletics at ACS and one of the organisers of last weekend's junior varsity Middle East and South Asia Conference football championships. "We try to make it special for the children and they then get excited about it."
The competition included four schools - two from Abu Dhabi, one from Dubai and one from Doha. A school from Cairo withdrew when Egypt started to experience political unrest.
Each game was preceded by the players' names being read out to cheers over the public address system. During the match, the action was often drowned out by friends and fans singing songs from the bleachers.
The United States is undoubtedly the benchmark when it comes to varsity sports, with highly-popular high school programmes. At the college level, games regularly selling out at stadiums of 70,000 seats or more.
Here, schools experience the best of both worlds, Brawn said - American enthusiasm mixed with international interest.
"All the schools have quite a few South American children, so we end up with a mixture of them, Canadian, American, South African and Middle Eastern," Brawn said. "That's unique to the soccer here because while we have North American sports and European sports, soccer is very much international."
Last weekend's tournament involved eight teams - four boys' and four girls' teams - and saw 34 different nationalities represented, including countries as far apart as El Salvador and South Korea. Of the 120 children, three cited the UAE as their home country.
"We don't have a lot of Emiratis in our high school," Brawn said. "I would say the percentage of kids we have on our soccer team is indicative of the percentage of Emiratis in our high school."
Ahmed al Sayegh, an Emirati father watching his daughter Alyazia from a seat near the touchline, said he believed sport to be "just as important as the academic side of things".
"It is an American school, so there is always going to be internationals here, it is to be expected," he said. "There are many dangers in society and, as a teenager, the camaraderie they are subject to through sport helps then negotiate these issues. When we chose ACS, it was mainly for the quality of education offered, but also the best school academically tends to have a variety of extra-curricular activities too."
ACS will host a basketball championships in two weeks and its students will compete in a tennis event in Dubai later this month. With Cairo American Community School being forced to withdraw from hosting the cross-country championships because of the trouble in the Egyptian capital, ACS has offered to host the first day of the competition at Yas Marina Circuit, and second day's action at Hatta Fort.
As the referee blew the final whistle at the tournament last weekend, an ACS coach - red in the face from screaming instructions - provided one final order: go shake hands with your opponent. Not that the young boys needed telling: most of them, clad in their green shirts with their names on the back, were already on their way.