The footballing world has turned its eyes to the Gulf region in recent months as the controversial 2022 World Cup in Qatar edges closer and closer.
But while the sport’s top brass debate whether the competition should be during the summer or winter, assess what improvements need to be made to the region’s infrastructure, and battle allegations of bribery, there are more important things happening at grass roots level.
With the influx of expats during the past decade has come an increase in football culture. Devotees of the beautiful game brought their love for the sport with them, and have been building a network of clubs, associations and academies to give amateur players a platform to play regularly, and to foster a healthier society.
One company which has been on football’s frontline in Dubai for the best part of that decade is IFA Sport, an organisation which has its roots in the community spirit that football has engendered in the UK.
IFA’s director, Jim Reilly, says: “In 2004 an individual from Liverpool came to live in Dubai, but unlike the UK found that Dubai had an exclusive football culture rather than an inclusive one.
“He had the philosophy of bringing football into the community, as it had always been in the UK where people at grass roots level went out in a field to have a kick-about.”
And so IFA was born, with the idea that, as Reilly says, “we’d go out to the local community and take football to them. We’d make it inclusive, less expensive, and open to all races and genders.”
The result? “It snowballed from then on.”
Now IFA Sport is the largest grass roots football business in the UAE, operating in more than fifteen locations, with more than 2,000 participants at their academies on a weekly basis, 400 players competing in their youth leagues, more than 20 qualified coaches, and plans to expand what they offer and grow into new markets.
Reilly explains that IFA does not just want to give people a means to play their favourite sport, but also a way to improve their fitness.
He says: “It’s not just about promoting football at youth and adult level, but also giving people the opportunity to get healthy and improve themselves that way.”
Indeed, health is a major topic of conversation in the region at present, with statistics from the International Diabetes Federation in 2012 suggesting 18.9 percent of people in the UAE are living with diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases accounting for more than a quarter of deaths in 2011.
Reilly says: “We are committed to improving health and fitness in the UAE. The stats speak volumes. The country is the fifth in the world for obesity, many school children are overweight, and people with heart disease are 25 years younger than in the UK.
“Anything we can do to help that is good.”
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