x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sharjah initiative: tapping into their 'local' resources

Football history was made in Sharjah on Wednesday. The Pro League club held a training session for an elite development side made up mostly of expatriates.

Football history was made in Sharjah on Wednesday night. The Pro League club held a training session for an elite development side … made up mostly of expatriates.

The teens live in the UAE and attend school here. Some have lived in the country all their lives, even if their passports identify them as Jordanian, Egyptian, British, American, Polish, etc. And for the first time, they are being trained, at no charge, by the staff of a UAE club.

"Sharjah Schoolboys" is the name the club have attached to the Under 15 side, and the hope is that Sharjah SC can train up youngsters capable of playing in their first team - or even the national team.

Sharjah are tapping a potentially rich vein of talent that could change the face of UAE football. They also could be embarking on a quixotic journey to nowhere.

Sharjah's effort comes before any official change in the football traditions of the country, in which global expats are never invited to join the national side, and any non-Emirati player at a domestic club would count against the side's limited number of slots for foreigners - which now go almost entirely to veteran South Americans with proven scoring abilities.

That the national team could use help seems beyond debate. The UAE have not reached the World Cup finals since 1990 and are in the throes of their least successful qualifying campaign, with five defeats in five matches. Meanwhile, no domestic club have survived the group stage of the Asian Champions League since 2008.

"My personal opinion has been that expat football must be promoted in this country," said Carlo Nohra, the chairman of Al Ain. "And if that yields some talent, and they qualify under the rules of Fifa for the national team, why not?"

Dr Saad Abrahim, an assistant coach with Ajman, noted that Qatar already naturalises expats to play for their national team.

"I think it would work here," he said. "They [the UAE] could expand, and be like other countries. If they let foreigners play, it would help the professionalism of the sport."

At present, young players who do not hold a UAE passport must leave the country to further their football dreams. Several have done just that.

That the Football Association have thought about this also is clear; at the Fifa World Congress last summer, the UAE sponsored a proposed rules change reducing the length of residency, ahead of naturalisation, from five years to three. The amendment was voted down.

In many cases, expat youngsters already have been in the country for more than four years. But the FA has not moved to naturalise any of them for age-group teams.

Tim March, general coordinator at Sharjah SC, conceded that the club might be spending time and money to train players with no football future in the country.

"In terms of community development, we're doing the right thing," he said. "It helps us connect with the community and build our fan base. The best-case scenario is that the rules change and we find players for the club and the national team. It's a controversial issue, but in a country like this, where 85 per cent of the people are expats, it's something that probably should be looked at."

On Saturday, Sharjah Schoolboys, who represent a selection of the best players from a local schools league, will train under the auspices of Bolton Wanderers, with whom Sharjah have formed a relationship. Later, they will be coached by men such as Lee Mitchell, who holds a Uefa "A" license, and Mark Gaitskell, a former Fulham academy coach, and Tommy Wingrove, who works with the Manchester United Soccer School.

They will play community sides and perhaps some friendlies with the club's Emirati age-group teams.

What is going on at Sharjah could be the start of something new and important. Or it could be another UAE football dead end.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae