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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Determined not to offer a superficial notion of why health is important, and how to ensure you stay healthy, IFA invites adults, especially parents to play their part.
“We’re trying to get kids to play and adults to participate in giving nutritional tips and other health tips,” says Reilly. “Here there’s a lot of temptation from fast food outlets, and lots of malls where you can go and play games, so motivation has to come from parents.
“Going out for a run or sporting activity can be hard when it’s 40C and you’ve got to look after your hydration, but there are lots of other things that people can do, be it football or something else, at indoor venues or fitness clubs.
“Most of the complexes and communities here have swimming pools and gyms that families can make use of, but the motivation for the kids has got to come from the parents themselves.”
Being at the forefront of grass roots sport in the UAE for several years, Reilly and the IFA have been able to see how things have gradually improved, with more and more clubs, groups and organisations setting up in the region.
But while growth of sports companies has increased, so has the competition – something Reilly greets philosophically.
“There’s been a great improvement here – you can tell by the number of academies and different sports you can do. We welcome that sort of competition – it’s an incentive for us to improve the service we offer, and it means there are more opportunities for people to get involved in sport.
“Our values are that we want to give back to the community. We’re not just profit orientated, so it’s more important to us that we give people out there a chance to get into sport.
“We work with schools on extracurricular activities, and do various community events. There’s one project we did with Emirates English Speaking School where we took 300 less wealthy kids for three months of training. That was great for them.
“We’re also trying to get more girls into sport. There was a study that showed obesity in women in this part of the world is higher than in men.
“Doing things like this is what’s important to us.”
There are, however, barriers which have limited IFA’s reach. Finding or establishing good quality facilities has proved a constant headache for Reilly and his team, as they look for ways to give participants the best chance to both play and get fit.
“What’s slowing down the growth of the market is venues,” Reilly explains. “We wanted to go to the community and say we’ll build on available land. But what we’ve found is that it’s very difficult because it’s hard to establish who actually owns the land in each case. They how do we get permits? What about facilities? It’s proved very difficult for a private company to do that.
“Luckily for us we were approached by a school – a low income school which didn’t have funds to build first class facilities. So we entered into a partnership with them to set up a venue which could be used by the school, the IFA and the community, and we would say it’s one of the best in the region.”
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The facility, IFA Sports Central near Safa Park in Dubai, is a fully floodlit, FIFA accredited astroturf surface, with one full sized pitch, three seven-a-side pitches, and bookings available throughout the year.
“We’re interested in doing similar things with other like-minded schools and companies in the UAE. We believe that in order for it to be more community driven, the private companies have to play a major part in it.”
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become more relevent to companies in recent years, with numerous businesses reaching out to charities, communities, entrepreneurs and others in a bid to do something socially beneficial with their position and funds.
While he praises the notion of CSR, Reilly asserts that more needs to be done for young people who need to get fit.
“I think some people play with the idea of CSR a little bit at times. We’ve certainly found it difficult to engage with the sort of companies we think we should be working with. Major companies are getting involved with health more than they were, but at grass roots level there is a lot more that can be done.
“Football clubs in the region need to do more to help academies like ours. We’ve been trying to open up these clubs and their facilities for more people, but it hasn’t happened too much quite yet. They have matches that aren’t very well attended, so it something we could work on together for both of our benefit.”
Partnerships aside, IFA is growing at an accelerated rate, and this year made an appointment which signified their determination to grow in stature, reputation, and expertise.
Former professional footballer Dale Gordon was named as the new Director of Football in February, bringing with him not only the experience he gained playing for clubs such as Norwich City, West Ham and Glasgow Rangers, but also fifteen years’ worth of experience at football academy schools in the UK.
“We wanted somebody who had experience both as a footballer and running academies,” says Rielly.
“Dale Gordon was a player with Norwich and later helped to develop the academy there. He brings great experience and his appointment helps us structure the business in a different way, helping us to move forward and raise the profile of the academy, as well as football in the UAE.”
The quality of the staff at IFA is an important thing for Reilly. Working so much with young people, he emphasises that coaches have to have not only the technical capabilities, but also something of a schoolteacher’s temperament.
“It’s not just their background, their certificates and their ability that we look at, but how they interact with kids and how they project IFA.
“They have to be the right calibre - the right person who loves football and has an affinity with children. It can be quite a demanding job, so they have to be more like teachers sometimes – keeping a cool head with the kids.”
Football in the region is currently going through a purple patch, with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar not far away, and success for the UAE in January’s Gulf Cup of Nations sparking celebrations across the country.
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Capitalising on these events is important to grass roots football, says Reilly, but there are some difficulties.
“The hard thing is getting an affinity with local clubs. The mix of people we have is about 70 percent expat, 30 percent Emirati. The Emiratis have an affinity with clubs and the UAE’s win was great for football here.
“But most of the expat kids still support their clubs from back home. We need to work with clubs to get expat kids to support them as well. That would really mean a lot to football in the region, and it would make a difference when the World Cup arrives as well.”
The World Cup arrives in Qatar in 2022 – the first time a country from the Middle East will host the competition. Despite allegations of bribery during the bidding process, as well as concerns over summer temperatures leading to a debate about the timing of the tournament, and other hosting issues, Reilly believes the tournament will be a huge success, especially for grass roots football.
“We’re nine years away from the World Cup, which really isn’t that far away. We’re actually looking at expansion into Qatar. At grass roots level there’s a lot to be done, and it’s an opportunity to try what we’ve done here in the UAE, and take it over there with 2022 in mind.
“Some of our partners are involved in looking at the preparations for the World Cup and I think they are going to provide some great facilities.
“Like most things in the Middle East, with the amount of experts they’re bringing in, and the kind of finances they have, I think it will be a great tournament.
“For our part, we’d love to spot the next Maradona at our academy, but that’s not necessarily what we’re here to do. We’re inclusive, not exclusive, we have all types of abilities here.”
Expansion into Qatar ahead of the World Cup is just one part IFA’s growth plans, which aim to not only spread further afield, but also strengthen operations within the UAE.
“We have a couple of things we’re looking at,” says Reilly. “We hope to develop a lot in the next three years. We would love to help fund or invest in other facilities. If somebody said ‘here’s a piece of land – use it’, we would love that.
“Expansion in Qatar and the Middle East as a whole is a big part of our plans. We’re in talks with a major club in Oman to do something with them and their youth project.”
For the time being, however, Reilly says he is very happy with the way things are progressing for IFA, and couldn’t think of a better job to have.
“I came here with no idea of getting into something I enjoyed so much and am so passionate about.
“It’s really rewarding and something you get major job satisfaction from. I get up and can’t wait to do it. It’s the same for all of us. I don’t have to motivate people to do their job, which is a real benefit for me!”
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