UAE's Juma al Dhaheri has no regrets about switch from football to ice hockey
Had he followed in the footsteps of Fahad Ali and Sultan Rashid, his under 14 teammates at Al Ain football club, Juma al Dhaheri may have made it to the Pro League.
Instead, al Dhaheri turned his back on football as a schoolboy to pursue a career as an ice hockey player.
He started playing with the expatriate community in Al Ain but has developed into the UAE's chief playmaker and will carry their hopes at the seventh Asian Winter Games in Almaty, Kazakhstan, from today until February 5.
His former footballing teammates also forged ahead in their careers. Ali went on to captain the national team and now works with Srecko Katanec, the national team coach, as part of his technical staff, and Rashid is the team manager of Al Ain.
They were both members of the Al Ain team that won the Asian Champions League in 2003 as well as six league titles and four President's Cups.
Al Dhaheri has no regrets he was not part of that team, though. Now 35 and a lieutenant with the Abu Dhabi Police, he is the captain of the national ice hockey team.
"We are still good friends. We stay in touch and talk about football," al Dhaheri said. "I started as a football player but didn't enjoy the game as much as hockey, which I played for fun at the beginning.
"I used to regularly visit the ice rink close to the club and in one of those visits I was invited by the American and Canadian doctors from the Tawam Hospital to play in the matches they organised every weekend. For me, it was more enjoyable and fun than playing football, and I have been hooked on the sport since 1992."
One of the high points of his playing career was winning the Challenge Cup of Asia with the UAE when it was hosted at Abu Dhabi Ice Rink at Zayed Sports City in 2009. However, they surrendered the title to Chinese Taipei in the final last year.
Still, al Dhaheri's most memorable moment in the sport was winning an international trophy with a select Emirates team in Baden-Baden, Germany, in 2003.
"It remains the high point in my playing career because it was played at the higher level and with teams comprising of professional players from the sport's established nations," al Dhaheri said.
"Of course, winning the Challenge Cup of Asia was national pride and did a lot of good for the sport in the country.
"It is a relatively new sport for the UAE at international level but it is getting more popular with all the publicity we received after winning the continental title in Abu Dhabi.
"The government granted us some extra funding and has appointed full-time officials for the running of the UAE Ice Hockey Association. The sport is still amateur but I believe it's heading in the right direction."
The Challenge Cup of Asia win earned the UAE a place in the World Championship Division III in Luxembourg in April last year. They returned without a win against Greece, Ireland and the host team but al Dhaheri felt they learned from the experience.
"We don't play as much as some other countries but to play in the World Championship was a new experience as well as an achievement on our record," he said. "We will try to convert all this experience to win a medal at the Asian Winter Games."
The UAE are pitted against Qatar and India in Group A of Division II. Kyrgyzstan, Thailand and Kuwait play in Group B with Malaysia, Bahrain and Mongolia in Group C. The top three teams and the best second-placed team will advance to the semi-finals.
Al Dhaheri is confident his team can go beyond the group stage.
"Malaysia and Thailand are the better teams, and we may have to meet them at some stage of the competition," said al Dhaheri, who has played in two previous Asian Winter Games in Hong Kong (1998) and China (2007).
"We have trained well as we did ahead of the Asian Challenge Cup and the World Championships. We have four new players, all between 18 and 19, so there is new blood since the last two major competitions."
Mubarak al Mazrouie, Saeed al Nuaimi, Mohammed al Shamsi and Saif al Ketbi are the four teenage newcomers to a 23-man squad that has been together for the past four years.
Khalid al Qubaisi, al Dhaheri's former teammate and now the team manager, said: "Juma is the oldest player in the team but he is still the best. He has preserved himself well through his hard work and dedication."
Al Qubaisi is optimistic the sport will move on to a new level with the introduction of the Emirates Hockey League in which two teams consist exclusively of Emiratis.
He added: "We have two teams in the league comprising of Emirati players, and the experience of playing against strong opponents has helped them and we are very hopeful they can convert that experience to more success at the competition in Kazakhstan."