Two unassuming citizens love for football have helped forge the road to change that has seen both become sporting ambassadors and role models for an entire country.
Words by Derek Issacs
The story behind Hamad Al Shehi and Omar Al Dhiyebi reads like a blockbuster movie; but this is life in the raw, a real community tale where the characters do good.
Once you know the story – some of you already will – there’ll be little wonder in your mind why both young men were recently made Ambassadors for Sports, Leisure and Entertainment for the Middle East Youth Expo 2019 (MEYE 2019), taking place on 21st November in the capital.
The setting of the remarkable story is Khalifa City.
It was here back in 2016 that Hamad, then 24, would spend weeks looking from his lounge window over the local football field where Omar Al Dhiyebi was coaching a team of young players. One day this all changed.
“Usually, the only people on the field are the young players and the coach,” says Omar, who established Regional Sports, a sports development company focused on promoting and developing grassroots football in the UAE.
“One day I was surprised to see somebody quickly run onto the pitch. The young man was skilfully dribbling the ball – but with an imaginary football – running towards the goal, and pretending to score before celebrating.”
That somebody was Hamed. Omar quickly realised that this ‘imaginary’ player was a person of determination. “It was the first time I had met such a person,” says Omar. “It became clear that Hamed was very passionate about football.”
At the café where we meet in Khalifa City, it was apparent that the bond between Omar and Hamad is strong. An abundance of trust exists between both men. Omar patiently listens to Hamad answer our questions, diligently translating them into English. Not that he always has to since Hamad has managed to pick up rudimentary English from his English-speaking football coach.
“I think Hamad has changed more things in me than I have in him,” Omar says.
Rewinding to 2016 to the time when Hamed had run onto the pitch, Omar describes how Hamed was stood waiting with a football outside the training ground.
“He wanted to play, so we found a space and kicked around for an hour and a half,” Omar says.
Omar goes on to describe how all he saw was happiness and began thinking about how he could help Hamed, so he could train like other boys and girls. Omar decided to arm himself with all there was to know about Down syndrome, Hamed’s condition.
Omar trained Hamed for months yet found it difficult to get him registered for matches, but this was about to change. A coach missing a player contacted Omar for help. “I immediately thought of Hamad,” he says.
Finally Hamed headed to the pitch for a competition match. “He was nervous at first, as were the players,” recalls Omar “He struggled to show the skills I had seen during our football practice.”
During halftime, Omar allayed Hamad’s fears, telling him to relax and enjoy the game… The rest is history, with Hamad managing to score a goal in his very first match.
Today, Hamad has many matches under his belt, scoring seven goals in one match this season alone. “He’s very ambitious and believes he plays for Al Ain F.C. and international teams, so psychologically he’s s up there with the best players in the world, which is his dream.”
Hamed idolises Omar Abdulrahman Al Amoodi, known as Amoory, an Emirati professional footballer who today plays for Al Jazira as a attacking midfielder and the UAE national football team. Previously he played for the Al Ain team.
“Hamad believes that Amoory is his best friend and talks to him all the time,” says Omar.
Through coach Omar, Hamad is quick to tell us why he has so much respect for Amoory. “I love him a lot. He’s a real great player, very skillful, and he’s a lefty [left-footed player],” says Hamad, who reveals that he himself is a right and left-footed player. “I also think he is humble and I like his hair,” he adds.
On the international football stage, Hamad is a fan of Barcelona player Gerard Piqué but it’s the blues over at Manchester City that he cheers.
Hamed, now 28, describes himself as a good player, who, as well as playing in goal, is a left midfielder. “You can score goals [in that position],” he says.
Omar has been running Regional Sports since 2014 to promote grass roots in amateur football, in a quest for kids to choose a different lifestyle other than going to parties or malls. “We didn’t have technology when I was a kid,” says Omar. “We played football six days a week; I want to bring that back, so kids leave school and play football.”
Today Regional Sports has around five hundred members with more than 50 nationalities at three academies located in Khalifa City, Shakhbout City and on Reem Island.
Hamad is keen to share how his team members at the academy support him. “ They help me prepare for training and matches, and represent myself in a nice way to be a good image for [HH] Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.”
Hamad is ready for his next step, which has arrived in the guise of Ambassador of MEYE 2019. The expo aims to inspire a lot of younger generations in schools by sharing what it’s like to be a sports person in a club and have an active sports life.
Closer to the event itself, Omar and Hamad will give talks to school kids. Hamad says he will explain his story, his journey and what it’s like.
On being in stage in front of a crowd, Omar says: “Hamed is more than happy to be ambassador and loves being on stage in front of people. It may be hard for him to communicate but he has the energy, and it is this energy that passes the message on.”
Head over the Special Olympics World Games YouTube channel to watch Hamad’s story