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Tue 12 May 2009 04:00 AM

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You’ve got to be in it to win it

Benedict Sawyer argues that the international sporting events the UAE hosts are missed opportunities until Emiratis start competing in them.

You’ve got to be in it to win it
Legendary runner Haile Gebrselassie went into the Dubai Marathon hoping to break the world record he set in Germany in 2008.

Benedict Sawyer argues that the international sporting events the UAE hosts are missed opportunities until Emiratis start competing in them.

To a sports fan there is little distinction between idol and icon, but to the businesses and brands that endorse the world’s leading stars the difference is crystal clear. Whereas an idol may scrawl a signature on a dog-eared match programme, an icon is a bankable commodity, his name lent to a carefully selected, sensitively procured range of products ranging from scents and sunglasses to super-yachts.

This helps to explain why one of last year’s most hyped events in Dubai — a city renowned for grand gestures and ostentatious displays of extravagance — was David Beckham’s debut for AC Milan. His arrival was the talk of the town and every logistical detail was seized upon by headline writers desperate to sate the appetite of a starstruck populus. Adidas had to order thousands of extra shirts and Karama tailors put down half finished bespoke suits all the better to glue onto synthetic football shirts the letters that actually spell out a hero’s adulation.

The match itself was a sporting irrelevance, a glorified training session in which an injury blighted Beckham barely expended a calorie, showing only rare glimpses of flair to encourage his legion of fans. It all seemed a little futile. Amid the fanfare, was there any thought for the future?

The UAE might not be able to qualify for the World Cup, but the vocal crowds and autograph hunters outside each and every Milan training session in Dubai showed that a passion for football is alive and well in the emirates. Was there not an opportunity being missed here? Surely, the Milan tour could have led to a partnership being forged between the European giants and a local club? The type of partnership that big clubs often have with small ones all over the world? These partnerships are not just vanity projects, they can facilitate player exchanges and access to top coaching. Indeed, they can even lead to greater exposure for local players to more competitive leagues. Striking up a partnership like this, or at least trying to, can hardly have hurt UAE football. But it seems it was never on the agenda.

The same preference for showbiz over substance was evident when the UAE staged the Pakistan versus West Indies cricket series in November because of security fears in Pakistan. The UAE was an ideal alternative to Pakistan; close by, fine weather and home to plenty of passionate cricket lovers.

The series may have been one-sided, but commercially it was a success, with the Pakistan Cricket Board able to fulfill its fixture commitments to the ICC and retain vital revenue through sponsorship and media rights. Indeed, with the imminent visit of Australia, it looks likely that Pakistan will make the UAE its home for the foreseeable future. But once again the hosts don’t seem to have been left a legacy. Or to have sought one.

The UAE national cricket team, despite being ranked a respectable 17th in the world, is woefully underfunded and run by an amateurish board lacking ambition and acumen. On April 4 cricketing minnows qualified for the World Cup, an achievement that will provide them with $5m of direct funding over a four-year cycle and lucrative opportunities to benefit from ticket sales, merchandising, sponsorship and media rights in playing the world’s leading sides in televised matches. The UAE was not one of these teams.

The UAE team is blessed with some talented players, but it was not given the support of contracts, a permanent coach or a thorough, professional build up to the tournament. With some forethought and financial support, local fans could have been watching their own national team compete in the country’s state-of-the-art stadia.

The Dubai Marathon provides yet another example of an alarming trend. The course was designed specifically to enable Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie to break the world record. The hype bordered on the hysterical with Adidas, for whom Gebrselassie is a brand ambassador, handing out T-shirts emblazoned with his target time as fast as they could print them.Everyone wanted the world record to be broken, for Dubai, for Adidas, for Gatorade. And so when, in a rare Dubai rain deluge the record remained intact, the event could only ever be considered an anticlimax.

Prior to the race, Gebrselassie was invited by Adidas and Fitness First to run a clinic. You may think this sounds encouraging and contradicts the evidence presented so far. However, consider that it was run for the sole benefit of winners of an Adidas promotion and consisted merely of Gebrselassie extolling the benefits of the latest Adidas trainer and being photographed pointing admiringly at its cushioned sole and breathable instep. He looked as bemused as journalists waiting for their allotted 45 second interview.

The message seems clear: Dubai is looking for plaudits rather than players.

Grassroots sport in the emirates does not always have the easiest of times, either. For example, there used to be thriving cricket team, some 30 years old, in the city called the Darjeeling club. They even had their own ground on the Al Ain road. Players from all parts of the globe gathered at the weekend to turn their arm and strike the ball to the boundary.

However, while the club still exists in name, it has only played one fixture in six months because its ground was dug up to make way for the Meydan arena, which has been a wasteland for months awaiting its makeover into one of the most exclusive horse racing tracks in the world.

That said, perhaps the early months of 2009 are a cause for a degree of optimism. The government and the Sports Council have announced that funding will be made available to sportsmen and women to give them adequate time to train for events such as the Olympics.

The announcement was also good news for the country’s cricketers, some of whom, such as all-rounder Qasim Zubair, had been forced upon graduating from college to make a choice between cricket and career, and had reluctantly accepted that bills had to come before balls. However, the new initiative should hopefully allow the players the opportunity to focus, at least in the build up to tournaments, on their skills, while sporting federations arrange their leave and compensate their employers.

Recently, Dubai hosted the Rugby Sevens World Cup. Although the local Arabian Gulf team failed to win a game on their World Cup debut, the International Rugby Board made it one of their prime objectives to leave a legacy for the sport in the host emirate. The result has been the establishment of an all-Arabic challenge cup, the integration of nationals into club sides, and even the elevation of an Arabic player into the UAE senior squad. Combined with the ‘Right to Play’ programme, that seeks to promote sporting opportunities to young people, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Sport City is beginning to take shape and will house a bewildering array of academies, sports science clinics and world-class stadia. While it hopes to host the cream of international sports’ events, there is no doubt that having such world-class facilities in Dubai will be a spur to aspiring local talent.

It is disappointing that it took a looming obesity epidemic to secure belated sports funding from the government, and the Sports Council’s eagerness to promote ‘beach’ games just serves as a sad indictment of the lack of recreational facilities and open spaces in the city.

However, there are some signs that UAE sporting stars will emerge in the next generation and be given the facilities, infrastructure and support networks to make it to the top of the tree. Even if only one local sportsman can win a tournament or make a splash on the front and back pages, it might just provide the outpouring of national pride required to justify further investment. This could then set in motion a cycle of development feeding success. Perhaps then the UAE could be renowned as a sporting nation rather than merely a sporting venue.

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