A league of nations for Dubai's school children

A new football tournament is the first to bring schools from all the emirate's varying backgrounds under one sporting banner and the players are thriving.

Greenfield Community School (green) take on GEMS Wellington International school.
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A loud roar of approval erupted from the English College School bench as one of their defenders blasted a clearance long and high.

"Wait till you see my second one," she said, laughing and enjoying her defensive duties. Later that evening, she and her teammates mobbed their goalkeeper, dancing as they sang, I Feel So Good.

English College School had just defeated Repton on penalties to reach the girls' semi-finals of the Dubai Schools Football League.



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Next day, GEMS Wellington International joined them in the last-four after a 3-0 win in extra-time over Greenfield Community School. All three goals came from the boots of a diminutive live wire named Georgia Gibson.

Georgia is 12, a big fan of Liverpool's Andy Carroll, and hopes to pursue a career in football someday. She has all the attributes - blessed with good skills, she is quick inside the box and rarely misses the target. In one game she scored five goals.

She is one of the hundreds of schoolgirls who pursue their love of football and competition in the Dubai Schools League, the first tournament open to all public and private Arabic, American, British, Indian and Pakistani schools.

The league, organised by the Princess Haya Initiative, started in January and teams have been playing every week since, visiting schools they had never been to before and meeting students from different nationalities.

For Georgia, it is an opportunity to continue playing a sport she has loved since an early age.

"Georgia has been playing since she was five, back in the UK," said her mother Judith, who is a supporter of Newcastle United, Carroll's former team in the English Premier League. "She has grown up with a twin brother playing football from being tiny, and it's been their passion.

"She loves it and she plays every opportunity she gets. So as long as she wants to do that [pursue a career in football], we'll support her."

Norman McKay, a Scot, sees a similar spark in his daughter Lisa, who studies at Repton along with her brother. "My son is probably going to go into business," McKay said.

"My daughter loves football so she may pursue a career there. We will see. She is still 14 so they still have a few years until they decide which way they go. She loves sports.

"We always think the kids should do what they want to do, especially when it comes to sports. We encourage them, but they make the choice, they make the decision and as long as they are happy; it's good competitive sports, it's good for their character building."

Those character-building attributes of sport were one of the reasons for the Princess Haya Initiative to launch this league. Health and a bonding between the different nationalities in the UAE are among the other objectives.

The competition is the first to bring all schools in Dubai together in one league.

"Dubai is a multi-culture community," said Ahmad Abdul-Rahman, the project manager of the Princess Haya Initiative for the Development of Health, Physical Education and School Sports.

"Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai] has always encouraged cultural amity and cultural togetherness. So we are using sports as an opportunity for youths and kids to meet and get to know each other.

"Even when we distributed the groups in the draw, we ensured that in each group we have a public school, an international school and an Arabic private school. We didn't want, for example, all public schools to be in one group. So if you look at the schools, you see different curriculums, different nationalities in one group."

In its first year, the league received an encouraging response, with 32 schools participating in the boys' competition and 16 in the girls'.

"Many schools were looking for something like this," said Osama Abu Jafar, the manager of the girls' league and a PE teacher at the Greenfield Community School. "They have their leagues, but wanted to play with other schools and public schools.

"We have been in contact with the schools since last year. We told them we have this idea and we are looking to start next year. We got a good response from all the schools. They were very excited we are going to start something like this."

The schools and students have all welcomed the addition of this competition to their calendar.

"I think it's really good that they are bringing new events like this to the schools league," Daniel O'Sullivan, the coach of the English College School, said. "It's giving girls opportunities to get involved with football.

"The tournament is fantastic because we get to play against schools that we wouldn't normally play.

"We have a circuit of schools that we play against regularly; this gives us an opportunity to play against other schools, which I think is good for the girls to meet other new people and see new schools."

Chris, a South African who declined to give his last name, has a daughter who plays for GEMS International. He said the mixture of schools with different curriculums is important.

"It's great they can come together, make new friends, see how the other schools operate, see how people are learning, what's happening and just enjoy themselves," he said. "It's fantastic.

"I think it's also great that we are getting girl's involved in soccer. The teachers are really helping, they are really enthusiastic and encouraging the girls.

"It's good to see girls' football growing and getting bigger and bigger. The girls really seem to enjoy it. They love coming down, they come out to training, they come to the games, get excited, get enthusiastic and after the game, win or lose, the girls go away and they are happy with it. They have a good time, they've enjoyed it."

The league has also partnered with the Landmark Group to spread awareness about diabetes through pamphlets, lectures and medical check-ups.

"It is not just about football," Abdul-Rahman said. "We are also doing some health campaigns alongside it. The [diabetes] campaign is visiting schools that are participating in the league and they are measuring their body, the BMI [body mass index], and giving lectures about healthy diet and how to fight diabetes."

Abdul-Rahman is hoping to see more schools participating in more sports in the coming years.

"We have started with football, but we are going to add one to two sports each year," he said. "One thing we have started working on is a table tennis league, which will start in May. Basketball is a very popular game, so definitely we will add it for the next school year. Volleyball is also in the plans.

"We will start with all the major sports - basketball, volleyball, table tennis, badminton and track and field. We have about 70 public schools and around 140 private schools [in Dubai]. Our objective is to get each school in Dubai participating in at least one league."