Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 May 2019

Meet the mini marvels helping make the Asian Cup a success

Children from across the country contribute to on-field spectacle

Flag carriers L-R Kareem Feras, Hisham Ahmad, Abdulmunem Mohamed and Belal Mohammed at the Asian Cup 2019. Tuesday, January 29th, 2019 at Mohamed Bin Zayed Stadium Stadium, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak/The National
Flag carriers L-R Kareem Feras, Hisham Ahmad, Abdulmunem Mohamed and Belal Mohammed at the Asian Cup 2019. Tuesday, January 29th, 2019 at Mohamed Bin Zayed Stadium Stadium, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak/The National

Within the bowels of the Zayed Sports City Stadium on Friday, a changing room will be a hive of activity. Nervous voices will chatter. Orders will be barked out. Silent mental preparations will be made for the task ahead.

This scene will not only be played out in the spaces allocated to Japan and Qatar, the Asian Cup finalists, but an army of child volunteers, some of the unsung heroes of the tournament, will also be preparing for their moment in the spotlight.

Match ball carriers, player escorts and flag bearers have contributed to a spectacular visual spectacle that has greeted fans at matches, as players walk out at games. Giant team shirts are carried onto the turf and rotated with perfect symmetry, by older volunteers. During the game, ball kids are deployed throughout stadiums.

Children accompany players onto the pitch, often holding hands or sharing a word with a professional footballer, as part of efforts to illustrate the tournament’s ‘Bringing Asia Together’ message.

Dozens of youngsters, aged from six, are deployed at each match. Sourced from local football clubs and schools, they represent a microcosm of the UAE – multinational and diverse.

Among them will be Ezekiel Vaz, who has been in the UAE for only nine months. He moved to Sharjah, from Mumbai in India, with his mother to join his father who has been working in the country for three years working as a sales manager.

Flag bearer Ezekiel Vaz. Chris Whiteoak/The National
Flag bearer Ezekiel Vaz. Chris Whiteoak/The National

The 15-year-old said playing as a winger for his UAE boys’ club, Invictus Elite Academy, had helped him settle in to his new home. It also gave him the opportunity to perform as a flag carrier at several games so far. He will be one of those chosen to take to the pitch for Friday’s final.

“The competition has been amazing. Being a football player, having this opportunity to watch high level players, it’s amazing," he said.

“It’s a pleasure to be in front of so many people. In the big games, there are a lot of people and looking at them support their national teams, giving it their all, is amazing.”

Another bonus is getting to watch matches for free. The volunteers are allocated seats in the stands. “It’s amazing, a dream come true,” says Ezekiel, who says seeing stars of Japan and South Korea were among the highlights of his Asian Cup. Most exciting though, was the opportunity to take part in two matches played by India, the country he dreams of representing himself one day in a World Cup.

“Seeing India perform at this level is amazing. I saw them beat Thailand 4-1. I have no words to say how I feel about being part of the final, it’s such a big competition.”

The call for helpers went out months in advance. Approaches were made to 150 UAE schools and football clubs, with the number later narrowed down to 30. Children keen to play a role then applied directly to the tournament’s organising committee. At each of the 51 games, 31 flag carriers, match ball carriers and player escorts have been deployed. More ball kids are needed, organised by individual stadiums, to make sure there are no breaks in play.

The flag carriers spend five hours training before a match. If they made the application through their school, teachers arrange for them to be taken to stadiums. Those participating through local clubs will make a special request to miss lessons.

For the final, player escorts will be chosen by tournament sponsor Continental. Flag carriers will be children that have performed well previously in the tournament, to minimise the risk of any mishaps ahead of the showpiece event.

“It’s very scary, but then we go out for the match and we know we have to be perfect,” said Belal Mohammed, a 12-year-old flag carrier, as he prepared to take to the pitch for the UAE vs Qatar semi-final. “It is exciting as well. We know we are carrying a country’s flag so we remember it is a big responsibility.”

Updated: January 31, 2019 02:56 PM

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