x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

UAE coach Ahmed Zakaria wants a spike in commitment

Once a permanent fixture in the Asian Men's Volleyball Championship, the Emirates have suffered some lean years of late.

Ahmed Zakaria, centre, faces many issues as head coach of the UAE men's volleyball team, not least players who have trouble attending training sessions, as well as matches, because of work commitments.
Ahmed Zakaria, centre, faces many issues as head coach of the UAE men's volleyball team, not least players who have trouble attending training sessions, as well as matches, because of work commitments.

The night before David Trezeguet made his first appearance in UAE football, in front of desolate stands at Al Shabab, the club had worn a very different look. Hundreds of fans had flocked to the indoor stadium, bringing their flags and drums, along, creating a din that could have been heard at the Dubai Bowling Centre across the road.

It was the final day of the Sheikh Rashid International Volleyball Tournament and the Egyptian fans had come to support their national team in numbers. They were playing Pakistan in their final match of the tournament and there was no shortage of support for the other side.

Heavily outnumbered, the Pakistani fans, however, were not outshouted and added to the atmosphere. A few Iranians were there as well, and Indians too, although their team had decided to give the tournament a miss. As always, there were few Emiratis though.

Ahmed Zakaria, the UAE coach, could be seen looking around longingly, but having spent more than a year in the job, he had come to terms with this aspect of sports in the UAE.

"This is normal here," he said. "You see that happening in football matches and every other sport. But I am hoping this will change and we will get more spectators coming here to support us.

"We are trying to build a good side and the support of the fans is really important for this."

As one of the leading names in Egyptian volleyball, with a 16-year first-team career at top club, Al Ahly, and appearances for the national team across the world, including the 1984 Olympics, Zakaria is used to seeing packed houses at matches.

As a coach, he has also been to the best of tournaments. During his time as assistant to Vecelin Vukovic, Egypt won gold at the 2005 Mediterranean Games and African Championships.

As Vukovic retired in 2005, Zakaria took over the reins of the team and participated in every major volleyball tournament, including the 2005 Grand Champions Cup in Japan, where the team finished fifth. At the 2007 World Cup, his team took 10th place and finished 13th in the FIVB World League for two consecutive years: 2006 and 2007. Egypt also won the gold at the 2007 All Africa Games.

After finishing 11th at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, though, Zakaria's contract was not renewed, and the soft-spoken coach ended up in the UAE. A new volleyball federation board, headed by Amer Ali, took charge of the game last year and they have a vision of putting the national team back on the continental stage.

The UAE had been a regular feature at the Asian Men's Volleyball Championship through the 1980s and 1990s, but have failed to qualify for the tournament since 2005. Overall, they have made seven appearances at the continental championship with a best finish of 11th among 19 teams in 1989.

In five appearances at the Asian Championships since that performance, the UAE finished at the bottom of the table twice (1997 and 2003), were second-last on two occasions (1991 and 2005) and 10th from 12 countries in 2001.

Ali wants to see a change in those numbers and they have put their trust in Zakaria to turn things around. The team has certainly improved under his guidance, but the country's volleyball chief wants to see them return to the Asian Championships by 2013.

"The national team committee, headed by Nasser Humaid, and the coach have done a great job," Ali said. "They have a very good plan, but we still need a lot of things for the future.

"Our target is to prepare the team for 2013. It is not easy to do something in one year. You have to keep working and have a long-term plan."

Sherif Hamdi, the Egypt national team coach, has also advocated a similar approach. Egypt have won five African Championships, including the last three, so it is not very difficult for Hamdi to point out the flaws in the UAE system.

"There is a big improvement in the UAE team since Mr Ahmed [Zakaria] has taken over the responsibility," he said. "He has done a very good job and all of us can see that the team has made progress.

"But the problem is, he is trying to get the team to their best level and he is not a magician. Everyone needs to understand that this is the level of the players and they are doing their best.

"The federation needs to make a long-term plan, a mid-term plan and a short-term plan. They should keep this team, but start to build at different levels and continue. Without this kind of a strategy, they will not achieve anything."

Zakaria and the federation are trying to do just that, but at the moment the UAE coach does not have the luxury of numbers to work with. The players available have a difficult time balancing their day jobs with the needs of professional sport. Many of them struggle to make regular appearances for their clubs in the local league.

"Things are very different here [compared to Egypt]," Zakaria said. "The players don't get a lot of time to play because of their work. There are many other issues. They could be living in Al Ain and working in Abu Dhabi, and with the daily travel there is little time to play volleyball.

"Many of them are unable to play for their clubs because of work commitments. Some of them have other problems with their clubs. So we are trying to do our best in the circumstances.

"We have tried to have long training camps to overcome this issue. I have also tried to change the mentality of the players. They need to take better care of themselves; if they have injuries, they must follow the proper recovery plan. I want them to be true professionals."

Khalid Hamza, one of the members of the team, acknowledges those problems, although he is lucky not to be facing them. The 24 year old, an immigration officer at Dubai airport, comes from a volleyball family, with his father, Ahmed, having played the game for Al Ahli and then Al Shabab. Hamza and his brother, Nabil, both play for the latter.

"For me it's OK, but there are some players who have problems," he said. "Some of them are working for the police. They have to take leave to come for the training because we have to train twice a day, morning and evening. That can be a problem for some people.

"Still, I believe the team has been improving, mostly due to this tournament [the Sheikh Rashid International]. We are playing well here because we had a good preparation in Slovenia. We went to China for the University Games and we came back here for this tournament. But we need to train and play more together to become even better."

Mohammed Sagheer, the son of a former India international, EM Hydros, has been a witness to the improvements in the national team over the past year.

He has played for, and coached, different teams in the UAE over the last 24 years and his two sons, Mohammed Sabit, 15, and Mohammed Zamoorat, 11, have also taken to the sport and train with Al Nasr club.

"The UAE is a blessed place, not just for volleyball but every sport," Sagheer said. "They have some of the best facilities in the world.

"When I came here, more than 30 years ago, I saw some really good volleyball players, tall and dedicated. I am not saying the current players are not dedicated, but there was a time, when the Sheikh Rashid Tournament had started, the UAE had some very talented players.

"But I can say this is the best UAE team from the last 10 years. They have shown a lot of fight and generally held their own against some really good teams."

That alone, however, is not good enough for Mohammed Shamel. A member of the UAE team, he is desperate to see them start winning and is hoping the multi-sport GCC Games, starting in Bahrain from October 11, will signal a change in the team's fortunes.

"We have to work harder to reach our goals and the goal is to win, not just to have good games without winning," Shamel said.

"I hope all the players think the same as me and not believe that playing a couple of good games is enough.

"We want to do something at the GCC Games to change the image of our national team and we will work hard to make our fans proud of the team."

Sagheer and Hamza are both confident the UAE team can do that, in the near future if not the coming month.

"There are so many kids who play different sports because they have so many top-grade facilities for every sport," Sagheer said. "So there are a lot of young players coming through.

"The clubs are bringing players from schools, from as young as eight-nine year olds.

"They are providing everything - uniforms, transportation and some stipend also. So they are doing a really good job promoting sports, especially volleyball, and I believe the future is bright."

Hamza said: "There are some promising youngsters coming through, but they should understand they have to train a lot, work hard on their fitness and take good care of themselves, first at the clubs and then with the national team. If they can do that, we will have a good team in the future."

Ali also shares the same optimism, but refuses to make any lofty predictions or set unrealistic goals for the team and Zakaria.

"What we are trying as a board is to work according to our resources," he said. "We know our resources and we don't want to say we are going to put a plan for five or 10 years and then not be able to implement it.

"We know the limitations we have in terms of resources - both human and monetary - and we are trying to prepare our plans accordingly.

"This board has been there for a year and a half now and I believe they have done a great job. We have six medals - two in ladies, three in beach and one for the first team in Egypt. So I believe the future is good."

arizvi@thenational.ae