The du Football Champions has come a long way in raising the profile of the women’s game since it was launched three years ago.
Back then in 2014, around 100 girls took to the field for the formerly known Dubai Schools Cup. But with the competition rolled out across the UAE, that number has more than tripled with that tally standing at more than 700 in the third edition of the du Football Champions.
That figure may still lag behind the numbers of boys playing in the competition but the last five years have shown organisers are going in the right direction in giving a platform for the UAE’s stars of tomorrow to showcase their talent.
Their UAE Girls Challenge which sees private academies, street teams and four UAE national teams in action has gone from strength to strength and anyone who wants to measure its success only needs to look at the examples of Tamara Mrad and Natasha Toms.
Mrad, 18, and Toms, 19, are now plying their trade in the US after being awarded scholarships following their impressive displays in the competition.
Mrad has good memories of the event, winning the top goalkeeper award in the 2015 edition as well as best the youngest shot-stopper to join the Dubai Women’s League. Her series of displays saw her receive six scholarship offers but she chose Davidson College in North Carolina and now plays for their ‘Davidson Wild Cats’ team.
In her own words, ‘Du Football Champions was her window into competitive football’.
“The experience was amazing on many levels. It helped me to improve my game first of all, playing in a competitive tournament and also be mentored by some of La Liga’s best players like Roberto Carlos,” she said.
“Off the pitch, it also helped to improve my learning skills like focus, awareness and collaboration. Football is a team sport, it teaches you to work with other people and teaches you determination and commitment. These are qualities that helped me to play a good game, but also to get good grades in high school.
“These experiences were an amazing foundation that helped me to get access to the best universities in the US. As an international student, it can be very challenging to get scholarships to US universities.”
For Toms, she was part of the GoPro squad to win the National duFC Cup, while also being a runner-up in the Dubai Women’s Football League.
Football runs pretty much in her family with her father playing semi-professional level in England after moving to Dubai when she was six, often played with boys.
Today, she is part of the football team of Sophomore at Delta State University, Mississippi. And the 19-year-old says her UAE experience particularly in the du Football Champions has helped her become a more developed player.
“I definitely enjoyed playing in the duFC games, they were always fun to be a part of,” she said. “They also had fantastic coaches such as Carles Puyol and it was a great experience to meet him and to play in front of him when he helped coach us in the final. The facilities at The Sevens ground were also top class and to train there and then play our final in the Dubai Mall on the Ice Rink was amazing.”
For Hussein Murad, CEO of Inspiratus and organisers of the competition, is hopeful more girls can follow in their footsteps in the future with plans to enhance their programme.
“With the two girls getting two full scholarships, that has opened the eyes of those girls and parents that they can go far. We are now expecting two or three more to be noticed and get a scholarship.
“As a result of the success of girls like Tamara and Tasha in duFC, we are now exploring formalising the scouting and development programme for girls through opening up the du La Liga High Performance Centre programme to girls.”
The UAE’s King’s Cup campaign ended on a dour note as Alberto Zaccheroni’s side fell to a second successive defeat in Thailand, going down meekly to a 1-0 defeat against Gabon.
The loss was a near mirror image of their opening game in Bangkok against Slovakia, the Whites were wretched in the first half before coming to life in the second, with Ahmed Khalil netting what proved a consolation as they went down 2-1.
It was the same on Sunday at the Rajamangala National Stadium, with the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang-less Gabonese sprinting out of the blocks and racing into a 1-0 lead thanks to a fierce Levy Madinda strike that gave UAE stopper Ali Khaseif no chance.
In truth it was a shock that former Real Madrid and Spain defender Jose Camacho’s side were only 1-0 ahead at the break, with the Panthers threatening to pounce for a killer second throughout the opening 45 minutes.
Southampton midfielder Mario Lemina was lively throughout and set up the opening goal 14 minutes in as Gabon sprung a counter-attack. The former Juventus man surged down the left and even though his cross was initially miscontrolled by Andre Biyogo Poko, his scooped second touch teed up Asteras Tripoli midfielder Madinda who drilled his shot home with Khaseif getting a hand to it but the Al Jazira keeper was powerless to keep it out.
A vital tackle from veteran Al Ain centre-back Ismail Ahmed then dispossessed Axel Meye from doubling the lead.
Khalil, who had netted against Slovakia in the semi-final, had the UAE’s best chance when he played a neat one-two with Al Ain clubmate Rayan Yaslam.
The hulking striker had a great sight of goal but sidefooted tamely at Gabon keeper Didier Ovono as the Panthers cleared. The lively Meye then missed a guilt-edged chance to give his side a two-goal cushion as he raced onto a fine throughball.
The Paris FC striker just had Khaseif to beat but dragged his shot wide of the far post.
Zaccheroni’s charges were much improved after the break but failed to muster any serious chances. Khalil’s dipping free-kick proved problematic for Ovono who scooped the ball clear after it bounced awkwardly in front of him.
A superb ball into the box from Mahmoud Khamis fell to Jazira youngster Ahmed Al Attas who sidefooted meekly at Ovono, who did well to repel the effort although Al Attas really should have scored, with a late offside flag sparing his blushes.
In the final, meanwhile, hosts Thailand’s bid to win the King’s Cup for a 16th time was thwarted by Slovakia who won an entertaining game 3-2.
Thailand, who had shocked Gabon in the semi-final with a 4-2 penalty shootout victory, had a partisan crowd roaring them on but fell behind 10 minutes in when Robert Mak’s pace teed up Ondrej Duda who smashed home.
Mak then went from provider to scorer in the 34th minute as he ghosted in behind the defence and got ahead of Pansa Hemviboon to slot the ball past goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan to make it 2-0.
Slovakia stopper Michal Sulia then gifted the War Elephants a way back into the game when his poor clearance hit Teerasil Dangda who rolled the ball to Jakkaphan Kaewprom to poke it into an empty net.
Mak saw a second goal ruled out for offside but his side did regain their two-goal lead through Erik Pacinda who curled home a fine strike 22 minutes from time after being fed by Duda.
Still the War Elephants marched on in search of a third straight King’s Cup triumph, and they reduced the deficit with 11 minutes left when a well-worked free kick saw Pansa slot home to set up a grandstand finish.
UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni has defended the absence of Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout with the Italian stressing that he’s keen to give opportunities to younger players at the King’s Cup.
The Whites were beaten 2-1 by Slovakia at Thailand’s Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok as goals from Albert Rusnak and Michal Duris earned Jan Kozak’s side a deserved victory. Ahmed Khalil scored the UAE’s goal.
2016 AFC Player of the Year and Al Ain playmaker Abdulrahman and Al Jazira striker Mabkhout, who was top-scorer in the 2015 Asian Cup, were left out of the 24-man squad for the Bangkok trip.
It was the first time that the national team were playing without Abdrulrahman and Mabkhout since the Gulf Cup final in January.
The duo were punished by the UAE Football Association with a four-match domestic suspension in January after being found guilty of leaving the team’s hotel without permission the night before their Gulf Cup final against Oman. The UAE lost the match in Kuwait City on penalties after a 0-0 draw.
Zaccheroni said they still remain in his plans but wants to use the four-team Kings’ Cup tournament as a chance to analyse talent at his disposal ahead of the 2019 Asian Cup on home soil.
“There are no differences in the value of Omar and Mabkhout, they are the pillars of the team,”he said. “They are two very important players and they were not called because I know their level and I want to give the opportunity to new players.”
The Gulf Cup finalists will now face Gabon in Sunday’s third-place match and the Italian has warned his team to create more opportunities after being disappointed with what he saw against Slovakia.
“The difference in the first half of the game was great,” said the former AC Milan and Japan coach. “Our midfield created many chances in the second half, but we managed to turn one goal into a goal. As you could see, Slovakia have a number of really good players who have a lot of potential and they took their chances.
“Gradually as the match went on, we played better.”