x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Al Nasr kicked off football passion in the UAE

Football has been a passion for Emiratis since long before the country was formed, and the first club, Al Nasr, was founded in 1945.

Football has been a passion for Emiratis since long before the country was formed, and the first club, Al Nasr, was founded in 1945.

British soldiers practised with local teams on uneven pitches and scholars who studied abroad brought back their favourite past -time, helping to spread the popularity of the game.

Now it falls on the UAE Football Association to make sure the sport stays prominent in the country's consciousness. Established in 1971, the FA joined the Fifa, the world governing body, a year later.

Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithi, former president of the FA, said the organisation's goal was to popularise the sport across the country and get more people involved in age-group competition.

The numbers are not high; only about 4,000 players are in the national system. This, he said, is proportional to the number of Emiratis in the country. Only nationals are eligible to play for the UAE at any age level.

Mr Al Rumaithi said that since 2007, financial support from the Government has increased by Dh51 million to Dh57m. The money goes towards the development of the National UAE age group teams. Since the infusion of cash, the national team have gone from a ranking of 100 in the world in 2007 to 96 in 2012.

"Football in the most popular game worldwide, and it's no exception here," Mr Al Romaithi said. "In that context, football can be played easily anywhere, be it in fields, streets, neighbourhoods or beaches.

Football fans across the country have agreed that their sport is the most popular among their compatriots. And while many play as well as spectate, most agreed it is not an ideal career path.

"Football is the most entertaining sport that you can enjoy either by watching or playing it," said Saeed Salem, 20, a fan of Al Ain FC. "It shows art and creativity at the same time. I started watching it at four-years-old and got addicted to it as I grew up. I don't find other sports as entertaining as football."

Mr Salem said becoming a professional footballer was out of his hands: "I would have had to have my family's approval from a young age to take it as a serious career, which meant abandoning my studies. My family would not have approved."

Hassan Eissa, another Al Ain fan, said football increases in popularity because it dominates in financial and media support.

"In addition, football pitches and stadiums are all over the UAE and can be found easily," he said.

Some fans made the distinction between team sport and individual sport. While shooting with a gun, for example, has brought the UAE international attention at the Olympics, the appeal of shooting with football is that it's a team effort.

Saeed Al Ameri, 27, pointed out how a successful team can represent the country, flying the flag in front of the world.

A key factor is getting Emiratis interested at a young age.

Essam Abduallah Al Ali, general supervisor for Al Ain FC academy, said there were about 150 young players in his organisation.

"Most of them join to play football because of the popularity of the game, the ease of playing it, the ease of being successful at it, and the raw talent in the game," he said.

It is one of the most common games in the world, said Saood Al Ali, 23, a fan of Al Wahda. "People can communicate by playing, even if they are from different cultures and speak different languages."