RAS AL KHAIMAH // The boys are kicked off the pitch at 6pm sharp to make way for the men. Their removal happens with a punctuality uncharacteristic of the northern emirates, but Friday football is serious business. It is not your usual match, nor is it held at your usual football venue. The action takes place in the sandy courtyard of Al Sirkal house, a crumbling two-storey edifice once owned by a rich merchant family that lived here before the 1950s.
The stadium entrance is a collapsed wall. The crowd is a mix of Arabs, Asians and Africans who live in the surrounding houses. Most are Emiratis, the sons and grandsons of the fishermen and pearl divers who built the sand-brick homes of the neighbourhood. Though the seashore was extended by 1km several years ago, depriving the players of their post-match swim, the maritime past of the neighbourhood is evident. Ahmed bin Majid, the legendary 15th-century mariner and scholar, is said to have come from the area.
The origin and owners of Al Sirkal house are a neighbourhood mystery. "I forget their name but we call it Beit Ayal Khalid, the house of Khalid's children," says Khalid Jakka, 23. "It was for a big family." His friend, Hadi al Makiar, fills in another blank. "His son comes here sometimes to see the house," says Mr Makiar, 27. "Some people want to buy, but they do not sell it." While the house's history remains an enigma for the most part, other traditions and legends hold strong. Football is a neighbourhood tradition, spanning more than two decades.
"Anybody is welcome," says Javid Sultani, 14, an Afghani born in RAK. Everybody turns up. Labourers and taxi drivers crouch on the ruins of a seashell-encrusted wall. Boys perch on fallen sand bricks, avidly studying the moves of their elders and mentors. "That goalkeeper, he's super," says Javid as the goalie performs an airborne twist on a horizontal axis in defiance of gravity. Abdulrahmah Farah, 13, his hands slung over the shoulders of Mohammed Abdulla, 12, chews on fruit and provides commentary on the action. The Somali boys banter in Arabic and curse using English expletives in unison, the tone rising with the degree of awe or disgust for the play.
For the most part, the ball stays within the confines of the old tyres that mark the touchlines. Occasionally, it soars over rooftops, a golden orb in the sunset as it flies into a panorama of satellite dishes and palm trees. Boys chase the ball as water is delivered by scooter and the players take a break before another ball materialises. The centre of the pitch becomes pockmarked as the game gathers pace. Clouds of sand are kicked up in the pursuit of victory.
Though there are no kits or team names, the 33 players are divided into two squads. Half are under the captaincy of Ma'ab, a hulking man known only by his first name and the power of his vocal cords, the others under Faiz Hamed. Players who moved from the neighbourhood when they married still return each Friday as part of the tradition, which extends to both the match and the venue. Long before football was the main attraction, the courtyard of the house served as a neighbourhood centre.
"When they get married, they made food from here," says Abdulrahman Hassan, 30, plucking a piece of charcoal from the pitch. "This is the wood from the fire, maybe from the '70s." Football, he points out, is into its third generation here. Despite the antiquity of the pitch, the generations here are counted by the decade - young men from their late teens to early 30s play at 6pm, men in their 30s and 40s play in the late afternoon and boys between seven and 15 play whenever they get the chance.
During Ramadan, midnight competitions take place by moonlight. Games reach an abrupt end at sunset the rest of the year. The moment the first note of the call to prayer hits the air, it is game over. The field clears and the men head for the mosque. @Email:email@example.com