Dubai schoolgirl Lyla Ali up for the challenge after impressing at Aston Villa

British Pakistani player, 12, is the latest product of Go-Pro Academy to catch the eye of one of the big clubs in the UK

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Judging by her assessment of having to play schools football against – rather than with – her mates from Go-Pro Academy, you might think Lyla Ali was turning teen-aged on Wednesday.

“It’s unfair!” said the Dubai College schoolgirl, who was actually celebrating her 12th birthday this week. “It is all of them versus me. They all knew how I was playing.”

Which are the sort of odds that actually give everyone else a chance. The coaches at Go-Pro have themselves been stacking the opposition against her for as long as they can remember – for good reason.

Despite being still so young, Lyla has long been regarded as a player of great promise. Last summer she was sent to trial with Aston Villa in the UK.

So impressed were the Women’s Super League club, they have maintained close contact with her coaches in Dubai, and invited her back to train at the next available opportunity.

Go-Pro have been readying her for the challenge of playing with and against some of the UK’s brightest young talents for some time now.

“From a very young age you could tell she has the awareness, the basics, and is happy to work really, really hard,” said Kirk Hilton, the academy’s director.

“The biggest thing with Lyla is we have had to challenge her. By playing her up an age-group – sometimes two – it has really developed her, and prepared her for that step to the UK.

“If she had been playing in her own age group she might have got into a few bad habits and found it dead easy. They need to be challenged to have a chance.”

She trains with the Under 12 boys once a week, and plays in the U13s girls team as well. Javier Gorodi, the academy’s head coach who arrived from the UK last summer with a wealth of contacts in the English women’s game, felt Villa would be a good fit for her, which is how the trial came about.

“They threw her in at the deep end,” Hilton said. “She had been there one day, and they put her in to play against Chelsea and Manchester United in one weekend.

It is a relationship where they are going to keep an eye on her and hopefully further down the line she will be signed when she is 16 and go full time
Go-Pro Academy director Kirk Hilton on Lyla Ali's Aston Villa trial

“She did three more weeks, and they said they want her back. It is a relationship where they are going to keep an eye on her and hopefully further down the line she will be signed when she is 16 and go full time.

“We need to make sure she is still doing the same things here and we are challenging her. She needs that competitive edge, so she is ready when she goes back. The standard in the UK is so fierce.”

The girls’ game may still be developing in the UAE, but the last big fixture she played in certainly had a competitive edge.

Playing for Dubai College in the DASSA League Cup final at the end of last month, she was up against four of her colleagues from Go-Pro in the Dubai English Speaking College line-up.

Included in that was her close mate, Lily Cuddihy. The duo had been a dynamic partnership up until heading off to separate secondary schools at the start of this academic year. They were central to DESS sweeping all before them at the BSME Games in Bahrain last year.

“I love playing tournaments because you get to play loads of matches in one day,” Lily said. “Bahrain was my favourite memory in football so far.”

The duo both aspire to a future in the sport, and they are following an increasingly well-trodden path towards it at Go-Pro.

The academy first set up a girls’ programme 10 years ago. Specifically, it was with a view to aiding the development of a player called Georgia Gibson, who at the time played for their U10s boys’ team alongside her twin brother.

Initially, there was just one other girls’ academy to play against, called Astrada. Now there are more than 10.

In August, Go-Pro will be taking a girls tour party to play in a tournament in the UK which will also involve the academies of Arsenal, Villa, Manchester City, Manchester United and Brighton.

Thirty-one players across the boys and girls section of the academy have gone on to either professional contracts abroad or scholarships in the United States, including Gibson who now plays for Newcastle United.

“In the past five or six years it has really boomed,” Hilton said of girls’ football in Dubai. “There are more clubs and academies and more opportunities for the girls to play.

“I wanted to give the girls the same opportunities as the boys. It was about creating a pathway for them. Just because they live in the Middle East it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get the same opportunities as the boys.”

The trailblazers

Sixteen boys and 15 girls have gone on from Go-Pro Academy in Dubai to either professional contracts abroad or scholarships in the United States. Here are two of the most prominent.

Georgia Gibson (Newcastle United)
The reason the academy in Dubai first set up a girls’ programme was to help Gibson reach her potential. Now she plays professionally for Newcastle United in the UK.

Mackenzie Hunt (Everton)
Attended DESS in Dubai, before heading to the UK to join Everton full time as a teenager. He was on the bench for the first team as recently as their fixture against Brighton on February 24.

Lyla, for her part, loved her first experience of playing at a WSL academy. “It was a very high intensity,” she said of her time at Villa last summer.

“Everyone was moving very quickly, so you have to know what you are going to do with the ball. You have to be scanning all the time.”

Born in Chelsea, she inherited an allegiance to Liverpool from her father, Imran, who is himself a Uefa-qualified coach.

He was born in Pakistan, but first learnt to play football when he was eight years old after his father’s job in shipping had taken the family to Japan.

His love for the game survived spells living in Hong Kong, Pakistan, United States and then, after university, the UK where he played recreational football while getting his coaching qualifications.

He said he was happy to push his two daughters – Lyla’s elder sister Alizeh also excels at the game – towards football.

“There are some societal norms, but they are changing, especially in Pakistan,” he said. “Sport was always big on my list for the girls. It gives you so many positives. I was a horrible student. My parents used to come back from parent-teacher evenings crying.

“I have learnt everything through sport: discipline, time management, teamwork, respect. It all stems from sport. They are enjoying it, and I am very happy for them.”

He helps run a football club in Karachi which includes a women’s and girls’ academy. He said his younger daughter had the “best summer of her life” while training with Villa last year, and all he hopes is that her love for the sport lasts.

“Becoming a professional is such a long road and there are so many pitfalls along the way,” Imran said. “I am under no illusions about whether it will happen or not. They are still kids and as long as they are just enjoying it, that is the important thing.

“I don’t harbour any ambitions that they are going to make professionals. If they do, and they keep enjoying it, keep doing well, don’t get injured, and get a few lucky breaks, then great.

“But am I all set, thinking Lyla will get a contract? No. It would be foolhardy for anyone to think like that.”

Updated: March 23, 2024, 4:56 AM
The trailblazers

Sixteen boys and 15 girls have gone on from Go-Pro Academy in Dubai to either professional contracts abroad or scholarships in the United States. Here are two of the most prominent.

Georgia Gibson (Newcastle United)
The reason the academy in Dubai first set up a girls’ programme was to help Gibson reach her potential. Now she plays professionally for Newcastle United in the UK.

Mackenzie Hunt (Everton)
Attended DESS in Dubai, before heading to the UK to join Everton full time as a teenager. He was on the bench for the first team as recently as their fixture against Brighton on February 24.