x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The Emirati royal who loves to play football the American way

A member of the Sharjah ruling family, the UAE Falcons player Khalid Al Qassemi tells Paul Oberjuerge of his desire to make the sport popular in the UAE.

Khalid Al Qassemi, the UAE Falcons player.
Khalid Al Qassemi, the UAE Falcons player.

SHARJAH // Khalid Al Qassemi concedes to being hooked on American football, and not merely as a spectator. The Emirati from Sharjah has been playing the game for 18 months, and he considers the often violent pastime "an adrenalin rush".

"I've taken some hard hits," he said. "It's not something that makes me quit, though, unless my hands or legs don't work anymore; that's the only thing that would make me stop.

"This is something I can see myself going as far as I can go, testing my body to the limit, see how much it can take."

Al Qassemi, 25, and a private banker, is testing his limits with the UAE Falcons, the nation's first American football club.

Before a recent training session, he recalled being interested in contact sports like wrestling when he was young.

"Back in the days as a kid, me and my brothers played at wrestling, watching the [World Wrestling Federation]. We got pillows and made our own ring and would go crazy. It was fun times."

That willingness to embrace collisions put him in good stead when training with the Falcons.

Kai Trompeter, the German who coaches the team, said that Al Qassemi, like the team's other Emiratis – Nader Al Mahri, Hassan Salem and Abdullah Ali Al Hosani – is "very physical and loves the contact; he doesn't shy away at all".

"It's such an adrenalin rush," Al Qassemi said. "It's fun to get tackled and push people around and beat them up. I think the biggest satisfaction for the offensive player is pushing a defensive player down to the ground, showing him that you can't get past me."

He first flirted with the sport while attending the American University of Sharjah. He had seen American football on television, and agreed to participate when a friend suggested that several young men get together for a scrimmage.

"We didn't know much of the rules at the beginning, but as time progressed we started to learn the basics, and making tackles was fun," Al Qassemi said. "But it didn't last long because everyone got injured and quit."

Roll forward a year or two, and the same university friend, the American Jon Jena, told Al Qassemi about the formation of the Falcons.

"He thought I should check it out," Al Qassemi said. "It was August of 2010, and here I am now, with the team."

Al Qassemi, a member of the Sharjah royal family known to his teammates simply as "Khalid", has never experienced a live American football game, and he will play in the first he sees, when the Falcons have their first official matches next month at the Dubai Sevens ground against a team from Egypt on March 3 and one from Turkey on March 17.

Al Qassemi is a solid 108kg on a 1.87m frame, with a low centre of gravity. He is training at tight end, a position which calls primarily for blocking defenders but also involves catching passes. He has become enamoured of it, and lists Rob Gronkowski, the record-breaking tight end of the New England Patriots, as his favourite player.

"It's really quite fun. It gives me a bit of both – receiving, catching the ball and also blocking and running. A mixture of both, and I enjoy it."

His favourite play is one in which the tight end is asked to run deep into the defensive zone and catch a long pass. "We called that play at the last practice, but I wasn't able to hold on to the pass," he said. "I love that play."

Trompeter has been impressed by Al Qassemi's learning curve in a game little-known in the UAE. "He's a big kid with strong legs, a stable base, as we call it, and he has good hands. So tight end is a good place for him. And he's very willing to learn."

The Falcons train three times a week in Dubai and Al Qassemi acknowledges that American football is an unusual sport for an Emirati to pursue, but he wonders if he could someday be remembered as a pioneer in the sport.

"I'm sure there are lots of Emiratis who love the sport, yet they don't know much about the team, about what's going on and being part of something that's starting to grow.

"You never know, maybe in the next five years, 10 years there could be seven or eight teams in the different cities of all the emirates. So being part of it at the beginning is maybe me as a role model, one of the Emiratis who started it."

poberjuerge@thenational.ae