ABU DHABI // As teams from 32 nations compete for the World Cup in South Africa, the UAE Football Association (FA) is preparing to discover the country's next generation of players. A new scheme to be put into place by the FA and Mubadala development company aims to identify and train the country's most promising youngsters - boys and girls - starting from the age of six. The coaches will be accredited by Fifa, football's ruling body.
There will be matches in, and between schools, with regional tournaments and, eventually, a national festival where the best under-12 players will be chosen for further development either at a local club or their school. At present, just a few dozen children are being trained in local clubs, and development for most youngsters does not start until they are about 10. By contrast, top clubs in Europe take players on from a much younger age.
Belhassen Malouche, a technical consultant for Fifa and the FA, said this is a practice that the national association wants to change. "The modern science of sport and football tells us that we must start from six-years-old," he said. "If you discover the child early, you can develop his capacity. From six to 12 is a very important period of development of agility, for coordination, for technique. If we lose this period then after it is not good. Other countries will have a better development than us."
The current crop of teenagers in the national team have put in strong performances recently, including a quarter-final appearance at the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt last year. In April, Mubadala and the FA hosted the first national football festival, with the best male and female youngsters from Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Fujairah playing in front of FA scouts. Twenty schools participated and 25 young players were picked out for further training. "We have a list now of the best players," said Mr Malouche.
He said there were plans to expand and improve the programme for the next festival this autumn. It will involve 160 children from all seven emirates and all 10 education zones, according to Rashed al Harmoodi, the assistant manager of communications at Mubadala. A stumbling point is that some parents do not want their children joining clubs at such a young age, Mr Malouche said. For this reason the FA is looking to train 60 teachers to be Fifa-accredited coaches this summer, in addition to the 65 who have already qualified.
"For this work we must have a bigger engagement of these people, not only to do the job, they must have passion," he said. Mr al Harmoodi said that the programme was also important for building leadership skills. "Sport plays an essential role in developing a child's character, self-esteem and leadership skills," he said. The top priority, however, is to develop a generation of young skilled footballers. "This is how we want to create the new generation."