Bahrain might be one of the smallest nations on earth, but when it comes to producing raw football talent there is nowhere in the Gulf to equal it. And while the team will be licking its wounds after an earlier than expected exit from the World Cup finals, expectations for the future still run high.
Here to ensure that the talent pool is stocked for years to come is the Arsenal Soccer School Bahrain, the country’s first dedicated part-time football coaching institute, which opens its doors to kids of all ages on January 3, 2010. Neil Harvey, the director of coaching is adamant: ‘All you have to be is enthusiastic. If you love football but can’t play, we’ll teach you; if you’re relatively skilled, we’ll make you better.’
It will be the first time that local children have had access to world class coaching, and bodes well for Bahrain’s sporting future. Though the organisers are keen to point out that the school is by no means an elitist academy: children will be grouped according to both age and ability, but the only entrance requirement will be the ability to pay. Unless, that is, you make it onto the schools outreach programme, which offers 50 youngsters of promise the chance to train for free. Since the school is affiliated to the Bahrain Football Association, it has been given the remit to engage underprivileged Bahraini kids in soccer skills, a remit the directors take very seriously. Director, Grant Myburgh, said, ‘In the country there is a huge amount of talent that goes untapped and we would like to offer the course to young players from every walk of life.’
The directors are also keen to point out that the school is not a fast-track conversion to Arsenal adoration. ‘The kids can support anyone: Manchester United, Chelsea, whatever,’ Harvey says. ‘Obviously, it would be great if we could extend our fan base, but essentially we are simply in grass roots development.’
Arsenal Soccer Schools were founded over 25 years ago, and have spread from their hub in London across the UK and around the world. While they are by no means the only club to have spun off the brand into soccer schools (Manchester United, Chelsea and Barcelona also run highly regarded schools, though none with international reach of Arsenal), Myburgh insists that Arsenal is the best for Bahrain. ‘None of the clubs have a pre-established history as long as Arsenal. We are doing this primarily because a lot of kids lead unhealthy lifestyles. There’s a lot of diabetes here, and the Middle East has the biggest obesity problem in the world. One of Arsene Wenger [the Arsenal head coach]’s key focuses was to change the eating habits and diets of the key players. By doing so, he prolonged some of their careers by up to 10 years.’
Although the club will be up and running from the beginning of next year, the school’s main club house, one of the most advanced in the region, won’t open until around mid-April. One of the key aspects of the design will be the space dedicated to a cafe that serves healthy food, in an attempt to instil the notion that talent and health go hand in hand.
Perhaps uniquely in the Gulf, the school will accept both male and female students, with a dedicated female coaching team giving a much needed boost to women’s football in the country. Myburgh said, ‘We want to be a benchmark in the region for women’s development in the sport.’ Indeed, Arsenal Ladies Football Team are by far the most successful team in English women’s football, setting an impressive precedent in a region in which women’s sport still has a long way to go.
In the summer months of 2009, as a way to test the water, the directors of the school held trials for an elite squad to take to the Arsenal International Festival in the UK, an annual competition between the teams from schools from across the globe. With 17 selected from a turnout of over 350, and after just two weeks of teaching, the team lost just one game out of the six played and thrashed the team from Greece 6-1, raising the profile of Bahrain among the international youth soccer community. Harvey said, ‘There isn’t yet a tradition of taking players from this part of the world, they tend to go to Africa not the Middle East. But we took those boys to London and they did exceptionally well after two weeks, so 10 years from now, who knows?’ The glory days of Bahraini football are well underway.
The Arsenal Soccer School Bahrain begins operating on January 3 next to the National Stadium. Coaching classes run outside of normal teaching hours (evenings and weekends), and courses can be booked in 12 week blocks. For more information, visit www.arsenalschoolbahrain.com or call 17 561 615.