Mahdi Abdulla is a typical Bahraini preteen, with one key difference – he can do things with a football most readers would only dream of and his regiment would make drill sergeants shed a tear of pride.
Abdulla, 12, who plays for at least a couple of hours a day in the summers in addition to his training at the Winners Football Centre, is on track to international acclaim, with support from his family and local community.
His father A. Hassan Marzooq, who works at Gulf Air, noticed he had exceptional talent and commitment from the age of five and by the time he turned nine, he was constantly beating his dad and still making him play 10-point games.
Marzooq, 47, who is still an active football player himself, said: “Even when he is done at the centre for the day, he will come and watch me play in the neighbourhood. This game is his passion; he was practically born on the ball and could easily outmanoeuvre me since he was eight.”
To get a brief reprieve and help Abdulla cultivate his talent, his dad enrolled him at Winners Football Centre in Isa Town. Right from his first class, his coaches as well as centre owner Fawaz Albinmohamed noticed something different about the boy.
Albinmohamed said: “We saw his talent from his first day on here. All eyes were on him. He was a young kid who was very confident handling the ball and even though it was the summer during which the games are more relaxed and fun, he took every match seriously.”
That fall, Mahdi joined the Under-10 league where his earnestness and commitment came into sharp focus. Even more unusual was his dad showing up at every training session and match.
While football in Bahrain is a matter of national pride and obsession, parents are often kept busy by work and other commitments.
As the season got underway and Abdulla’s talent was seen by other clubs, he quickly started to get sponsorship offers to help groom him towards the ultimate honour in Bahraini football: a spot on the national team.
Winners FC, a relatively young club, having been started in 2014 by former football players Albinmohamed and Ebrahim Alsada, appealed to Abdulla’s mom, Fatima, for one particular reason – its focus on his holistic growth.
In addition to sponsored training, they also emphasize high academic performance and a strict healthy diet. Albinmohamed’s goal is to prepare the young footballer to pursue a soccer scholarship internationally through the Edusports programme.
The scholarship, supported by His Highness Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, President of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports and sponsored by the Ministry of Youth and Sports Affairs, in partnership with Tamkeen, aims to give Bahraini talent a global edge.
Despite his talent and focus, Marzooq knows that the road is going to be a long one. “He is a very good player, but he never likes to lose,” said Marzooq. “He gets frustrated and angry, and if I win, he would refuse to stop playing until he does.”
Within a few months of starting his official training, Abdulla travelled to Spain in December 2018 to spend time at the Valencia Club de Fútbol’s academic camp.