An Emirati footballer who lost the ability to walk after a car crash in 2018 has become the first disabled athlete to receive a coaching licence from the Asian Football Confederation.
Ahmed Al Akberi has been training deaf footballers in Abu Dhabi since February, and has now been officially recognised as a coach by the AFC.
The licence, issued by the Emirates Football Association in collaboration with the AFC, certifies the 24-year-old in several areas including training children and first aid.
It is the first level of a four-stage qualification. Reaching level four would qualify Mr Al Akberi as an international coach for all players and matches.
Mr Al Akberi started playing football for Al Wahda club when he was six years old, eventually landing a spot on the first eleven for the UAE national team.
His golden moment was a spectacular goal scored against Dubai's Al Wasl club during the 2018 Arabian Gulf League, he said.
He proudly showed YouTube footage of the goal. Running mid-way up the pitch, he kept possession of the ball despite a powerful tackle from an opponent, and scored to extend his team's lead to 3-1. The match ended with a 4 -1 for win for Al Wahda.
“This was two months before the accident,” he said.
“It is as if I felt it would be my last shining moment, I did not even feel like celebrating.
“I just walked behind the goal and sat there to block photographers from taking my photo, but somehow they managed to catch me on video while sitting there.”
Late at night on October 18, 2018, Mr Al Akberi was driving in the Al Mafraq area of Abu Dhabi when his vehicle spun out of control and rolled over.
It left him confined to a wheelchair for life.
“I don’t remember what happened, but they told me the tyre exploded and the car flipped,” he told The National.
“I spent six days in intensive care then I was flown to Germany for surgery and rehabilitation.”
Eight months later, Mr Al Akberi returned to the UAE knowing that he could never play for his old team again.
“I continued to do therapy in Abu Dhabi, but then Covid-19 happened and I stopped everything.”
Convinced his career in sport was over, he applied for an administrative job at the Zayed Higher Organisation for People of Determination.
His interviewer, however, saw the potential in Mr Al Akberi and suggested another position.
“I told him why don’t you work in your field and with something that you like?” said Abdullah Al Humaidan, general secretary of the ZHO.
“At first he was hesitant, but I convinced him to give it a shot.
“We had a team of deaf footballers but they never had a proper coach so they weren’t very committed to training.”
The team were also used to managing themselves independently, and Mr Humaidan knew it might be difficult for them to take on a coach, "especially one with a different disability" to them.
Dishearteningly, only two players out of 25 showed up on the first day of training.
However, when they saw Mr Al Akberi enter the stadium, “they immediately recognised him, and started taking selfies with him”.
“And during the second session, more players showed up and the same thing happened,” said Mr Humaidan.
Soon the new coach began attracting new players to join the ZHO team.
Most recently, Mr Al Akberi led the team to the finals of the Dubai Cup for People of Determination. They finished as first runners up, being beaten by Dubai Club in the last round.
Plans are now under way to hold a summer camp for hearing impaired footballers from across the country.
“There are only around eight teams in the UAE, so would be good to hold it in Saudi Arabia because they have many teams there, so we can do it together,” Mr Al Akberi said.
Mr Humaidan said ZHO has received more applicants for therapy thanks to Mr Al Akberi.
“After Ahmed’s story came out, people were inspired by his determination,” he said.
Mr Al Akberi added: “When I arrive in the morning, my mood improves.
“I like being here. It is massive and you meet all kinds of people and children.
“And when you see other people with similar, or worse, problems then your problem feels lighter somehow.”
Mr Al Akberi is also having therapy at the ZHO. “I found it quite convenient to be receiving treatment and working at the same place.”
In an Instagram post from his playing days, Mr Al Akberi is seen sleeping on an aeroplane and hugging an enormous trophy.
“We won the Super Cup against Al Ain in 2018. Egypt hosted the match and as we were flying back I held on to the cup for a bit, then I feel asleep while hugging it so they took this shot of me,” he said.
He said being a player was “a completely different feeling and thrill” but he enjoys the authoritative role of a coach.
“Now I get to give orders and boss the players around," he said with a smile.