x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Size does not matter as Al Ahli leap higher

The Dubai club's basketball team have adapted to German coach Schomers' style well, and have raked in the silverware this season.

Al Ahli players celebrate with coach Peter Schomers after having swept all but one domestic trophies, including a sixth league title and a ninth President’s Cup.
Al Ahli players celebrate with coach Peter Schomers after having swept all but one domestic trophies, including a sixth league title and a ninth President’s Cup.

Last Saturday, the UAE basketball season came to an end with Sharjah defeating Al Wasl to win the Super Cup. That was the only title that escaped Al Ahli's grasp in a season they pretty much dominated.

The Dubai club swept through every tournament before the Super Cup, starting with the Vice President's Cup in October.

They then clinched their sixth league title and then added a ninth President's Cup. They had not won the President's Cup since 2002 and their last league title came in 2008. The club also reached the final of the Dubai International Championship, where they lost 79-89 to Lebanese club Anibal Zahle.

Ahli's bid for a domestic clean sweep was denied by Wasl in the semi-finals of the Super Cup, but the Red Knights will have few complaints about not securing that final piece of silverware given their fine season.

The man responsible for turning their fortunes around is an unassuming German. Arriving at Ahli in August, Peter Schomers had experience of working in the Gulf region having coached Kuwait Sports Club last season.

He left Kuwait to take over the reins of the Lebanon national team when Ahli came calling. Schomers, 49, had worked for a season at Hoops club in Lebanon and liked the country, but the "politics" around the national team made him uneasy.

He made enquiries about the Ahli team, their players and history, and eventually decided the Dubai team represented a challenge.

"So before I came to this team, I had a pretty good idea about the team in terms of talent, our physical talents, the expectations and their disappointments from years before," Schomers said.

Having previously worked in Germany, Austria and Romania, Schomers was aware of the challenges he would face, most notably the adjustments he would have to make in his coaching methods given the difference in quality between Europe and the Gulf.

"You come here and the first thing you say is, 'OK, this is your team' and you have to find your orientation," Schomers said.

"Then you get to know the players and you bring your system and hope that it fits. You don't know too much about the team; only from DVDs.

"[But] with this team, I really had a good feeling because I saw that physically they were able to fit into the system that I believe in, that I have used primarily in the last five years.

"I am using a full court defence in combination with a lot of transition basketball ... not the whole game, but big periods of the game.

"I introduced it here and this game has a lot to do with physical attributes - quickness, sprinting, running, fighting. If I see a team - not just one guy - can do it, then I see they can fit into my system.

"These players really did a great job accepting the system and I had some great fighters on the team, even those players who were not playing towards the end of the season."

A promising crop of youngsters, who had just graduated from the club's youth ranks, helped Schomers' cause. Qais Omar is one. He is considered among the country's best players. Mohammed Abdul Latif and Khalifa Khaleel are also highly rated, and played an invaluable part in Ahli's success.

"These young players have done really well," said Abdul Latif Abdul Elah, the Ahli assistant coach, who himself had helped the club win seven President's Cup titles as a player. "They have been responsible for bringing our team back to the top."

The Ahli squad is a little on the short side when compared to the monsters who dominate most rosters in the NBA.

Abdul Elah stands at 1.8 metres.Virtually none of the Ahli players come close to approaching that height, although Schomers added the imposing Senegalese guard Cheikh Samb to this group on arrival - the former Los Angeles Lakers draft stands at 2.16m - but Elah, the former national team player, who helped UAE win two GCC Cups, said size was not everything.

"Now, it's all about skills because usually most of the players play on the streets," he said. "They take this technique from the streets."

Schomers said Ahli's dominance masked the fact this season was one of his most challenging as a coach. "I am enjoying this," said Schomers, who will continue at the club next season.

"This is a great year for the whole organisation. It's been a long year and honestly it wasn't easy. It was very energy-consuming because I am a new coach and I don't know the guys.

"I felt I coached four or five different teams this season and it was a challenge for me to get them to the point where I want them - in defence, in offence, with discipline. It was quite a challenge and this is why I am so happy about the results, the fact that we won so many games."

Schomers was realistic enough to know his European coaching methods would not necessarily translate to this region.

He knew the game in the Gulf was very different from Europe, or even Lebanon, where basketball is a popular sport. The UAE was a bigger challenge than Kuwait as well, according to Schomers, because here only one foreign player is allowed per team. In Kuwait he had two.

"Now teamwork is probably a little bit different here in the Middle East, the decision-making process is a little bit different than Europe," he said.

"This is what you have to understand and accept as a coach. As a coach, the key is to understand the new culture that you are in and accept it. Of course, sometimes it is not easy.

"It is their country, it is not my country. I have to be the one taking a step towards them and making adjustments. On the other hand, I tell them sometimes, if you want to have good performance, you got to take a step towards me, too. So I have to take a big step towards them and they have to be willing to take a step towards me, too. Only then it works.

"This is why I was very happy with this team because I felt like they took this step towards me. They saw my programme, they know what I want and they were willing to give it [a chance].

"This has nothing to do with money or anything. It just has to do with your own willingness to do it, with your pride. So I am very happy with the character of almost all the players on this team."

Schomers is in Dubai with his Romanian partner. She was already working here when Ahli approached him.

"She works here and I have been visiting her for two years, on and off," Schomers said. "After I left Romania, I went to Lebanon and she came here. I flew back and forth for a long time. It wasn't easy.

"But she is not the reason why I came here; if I had decided to go somewhere else, she would have come with me.

"You are a professional coach, so the money is very important. Secondly, the team; you want to have success. Everything else, you just put aside.

"I am not saying I put love behind, but I have to have a wife or a girlfriend who is very flexible, too. As a matter of fact, maybe that's why I am not married until now."

arizvi@thenational.ae

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