x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

'World Cup' gives inmates passing taste of freedom

Dh100,000 in prize money will be handed out in football World Cup for prisoners.

About 100 prisoners participated in the World Cup for Inmates yesterday at Dubai Central prison, in which they were divided up by nationality for a football tournament. Courtesy Dubai Police Department
About 100 prisoners participated in the World Cup for Inmates yesterday at Dubai Central prison, in which they were divided up by nationality for a football tournament. Courtesy Dubai Police Department

DUBAI // It was a familiar World Cup scene: countries’ flags fluttering over the football pitch, national anthems ringing out and the trophy being unveiled.

But the setting was a little different: the participants and supporters were inmates at the Dubai Central Jail.

The event, organised as part of National Day celebrations, kicked off yesterday by Saeed Abdul Al Ghafar, the deputy head of the UAE football union, on a pitch littered with coloured streamers. The final is to be held on December 15.

The stakes are high; a total of Dh100,000 in prize money will be handed out. More importantly, the prisoners said it offered them a chance to at least feel free.

“For a short moment you feel that you are outside, you are not in jail and you forget about your prison situation. But at the same time you remember how it is to be free and you remember your family,” said Nelson Jones, 35, from the Philippines, who is serving a 15-year sentence for attempted murder.

His compatriot Jess Reyes, who is serving four years for breach of trust, said the feeling was bittersweet.

“Moments like this, when you feel a free person, makes it more hard to accept prison,” Reyes said. “It makes you miss your family.”

Col Adel Al Suwaidi, the director of education and training for the Prisoners Department, said he came up with the idea to mark the end of the sports training season for the year.

“Then we realised that it coincided with the National Day and we thought it would be nice to have different nationalities celebrating the day and greeting the UAE for its 40-year anniversary. So we came to think that it would be possible to organise a World Cup for inmates, as there are many different nationalities in the prison. So we asked the different nationalities at the prison to create their own teams.”

Twelve teams are competing: the UAE, Iran, the United Kingdom, India, Mexico, Cameroon, Egypt, Pakistan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast are represented. Each team has seven players and a goalkeeper.

The teams were divided into four groups, much like the official World Cup, and will earn points for each match they win.

The UAE team marched on to the pitch for the opening ceremony carrying a large flag as the national anthem played.

As other teams followed, players began singing the well-known football cheer “Ole, Ole, Ole”. The Nigerian and Cameroonian teams went further, performing traditional African dances.

The efforts were not lost on the 30 inmates selected to watch the ceremony from behind bars in a sealed-off outdoor yard, who cheered as they watched. But the bigger crowds were indoors, as the jail’s 2,500 inmates watched the ceremony live on the prison’s CCTV channel.

They were also allowed to watch the first match of the tournament, between the UAE and Iranian teams. Iran won, 2-1.

The prize money will be distributed among players in the winning team, but special awards will be given out for the best player, goalkeeper, striker and referee.

Several inmates participating said they were hoping for a much bigger prize.

“We are here to celebrate the National Day of the UAE, but we also hope to celebrate our pardons,” said Aleen, 32, from Cameroon, sentenced to 25 years in jail for drug trafficking. “We are victims of circumstance and we live so far away from our family, who we miss and hope to see.”

wissa@thenational.ae