Monday, 13 January 2014

"I really wanted an autograph": The story of how a Manchester United fan got to work with his heroes when they visited Sydney last year

A medical student at the University of Sydney, Zarshis Avari was part of the medical team that was attached to Manchester United when they travelled to Australia for their pre-season preparations last summer.

Zarshis has been supporting Manchester United for the last ten years, but he's wearing a frown while speaking about them now.

He's speaking to me a day after Sunderland beat the Red Devils at the Stadium of Light in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final, but that United have suffered three defeats on the bounce does not dampen his enthusiasm when he tells me about what he did last summer.

Zarshis Avari, medical student and
Manchester United fan.
Reproduced with permission

How it happened

Although he now cherishes the week he spent with the United players and staff, his time with the 21-time Premier League champions happened by chance.

"It was a part of my Independent Learning Assignment (ILA)," he recalls "I went to the Sports Science Association and I asked the receptionist, 'can I see any doctor who's available and who can take me in for a week or two?' 

He walked in to the association building about three months before United came calling. For legal reasons, Zarshis does not wish to name the doctor who'd organised this for him.

The doctor said 'I'm going to be busy for the next three to four weeks because a team from England is coming to play in Sydney and I will be their physio while they're in Sydney.'

'Which team are we talking about here?' was Zarshis' next question, because he - rabid fan that he is - knew United were coming to Sydney.

"He didn't even know the name of Manchester United and he looks at his phone," recalls Zarshis, giving me the same wide-eyed stare he gave this doctor when he came to know that he was going to be working with United.

His love for United

"I just go, 'look, please, can I please please please please (four pleases) do my ILA with you on this topic because I'm a big, big fan and he straight away pointed out that being a fan, it's not a good thing because you have to keep your opinion and your profession separate," he recalls.

This was a chance that most football fans would give anything to be part of, and Zarshis had to promise to be on his best behaviour when the team did come to Sydney if he was to convince this doctor to let him work with him.

Lookie, lookie! From left to right: Manchester United's Anderson Oliveira, David de Gea, Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra along with two members of the coaching staff at the $1000 a night Park Inn hotel where the players stayed.
Reproduced with permission
A month later, Zarshis was given his entry pass, but it came with strict conditions.

"No autographs, no photos, no handshakes," is what the doctor told Zarshis. "You'll be tailing me, you'll only be with the players while I'm there."

Fan that he is though, Zarshis went to see his childhood heroes disembark at Sydney International Airport and was even able to take a few photos of them.

"I always thought I wouldn't have much of a reaction because I'm that kind of guy but seeing the legends like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, that was huge," he recalls.

But when he joined up with the team the next day at the Kogarah Stadium, he remembers having to restrain that emotional side of himself.

Staying grounded

"When I was with the team, it was hard," he says. "I was thinking about the goals that (Wilfried) Zaha has scored or the goals that Ryan Giggs has scored, I was thinking about the FA Cup (semi-final) against Arsenal.

"Sometimes I would tend to forget what I had to do so I would just stare at the player in a blank fashion. The player would know what was going on because they've seen that reaction a lot of times."

"I really wanted an autograph!" he adds wistfully. "I was even thinking of sneaking in but my professional side told me 'you might get thrown out'."

One of the tests Zarshis remembers doing on the players was a knee exam on Patrice Evra, but a few musculoskeletal tests aside, he spent most of his time tailing his physio.

On the 20th of July, Zarshis added to that experience when he watched his beloved team play live for the first time at the ANZ Stadium. The pre-season friendly between United and the Australian A-League All Stars ended in a thumping 5-1 win for the visitors.

Fond memories: Zarshis' photo of the two teams lining up in the ANZ Stadium at the Sydney Olympic Park ahead of their pre-season friendly. United won 5-1 with a brace apiece from Danny Welbeck and Jesse Lingard, with Robin van Persie also scoring. Reproduced with permission
During their stay in Australia, the United players hosted several autograph-signing sessions but Zarshis could not attend them because in addition to working with the team, he still had to attend lessons and prepare for his exams.

"I had an exam the week after, so I could really take time out to go to the Kogarah stadium to meet the players," he says.

Unfortunately, Zarshis has had  to look for another ILA, which he tells me has already been secured: because his time with the team was so short, it did not count towards the completion of his ILA.

Truth be told, I don't think he really minded. "It was an amazing experience, just seeing the players in real life," he gushes.

"Working with them, it's going to go on my CV and I'm betting it's going to impress a few employers."

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Why is it hard for the Japanese to speak English?

Despite being the world's third-largest economy, Japan fares poorly with the rest of the world when it comes to speaking English. 

When it comes to scores on the widely accepted TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), Japan is ranked 27th among 30 Asian nations, below North Korea, Mongolia and Turkmenistan.

To find out why the Japanese find speaking English difficult, I got in touch with Masayuki Nakao, a Ph. D Student of English Language at Hiroshima University

His answer was simple: "We don't need English in our daily lives or our daily conversation," he says. "We just basically use only one language, which is Japanese. Businesspersons of course, need English to have a meeting with international companies or to negotiate with other persons who are not Japanese."

"But in our daily life, we don't need to use English. It is I think a crucial reason why there are many Japanese people who don't speak English."

Masayuki Nakao, who is doing his Ph. D in English from the University of Hiroshima, Japan
Reproduced with permission

English and business

Even when it comes to businesses, though, Japanese struggle to speak the language. Despite being a major world exporter, a survey of 1,156 white-collar workers showed that only nine percent of Japanese claimed to be comfortable with the English language.

But with English being the world's lingua franca, nearly 50% of Japanese companies require future employees to have knowledge of the language, up from just 19% in 2009. In fact, Rakuten, Japan's largest online retailer, has informed staff that their lack of English will stand in the way of promotion.

Masayuki's father Yoshiyuki has been teaching English in Hiroshima for more than 30 years now, and he tells me that the government is taking steps to address this problem.

"The Ministry of Education is taking into full consideration the linguistic situation in a more globalised world we Japanese may confront with say 20, 30 years later," says the 62-year-old.

A paper which looks at English language
and literature that Yoshiyuki Nakao
contributed to.
Photo for illustrative purposes only
He says that because Japanese companies need English to communicate with the outside world, pressure is being put on the Ministry of Education to hasten the process of teaching English to the Japanese.

"Industries give high pressure on the Ministry of Education to encourage teachers to use the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication), TOEFL, IELTS (International English Language Test for Students) etc. at school," he explains. 

"Of course there are lots of branches of Japanese industries outside Japan," he says. "We need staff talented with high English proficiency.

"I am sorry to say that there are very few of high proficient English speakers.

"The English proficiency level of Japanese are relatively low in comparison with other Asians like Korean and Chinese in terms of the average of TOEFL," he adds. 

"I wonder why. This is perhaps due to the introduction grade/year of learners and also to how English is needed for daily life."

English education in schools

At present, Japanese students start to learn English in junior high school, but the government is now taking steps to introduce English at elementary school level so that Japan's next generation are able to learn the language faster.

English teachers of Japanese origin "are given some study leave (one month or so) to study abroad," explains Mr. Nakao. " They are given regularly lessons about the new way of teaching methods and linguistic theories by the Prefectural Educational Board." 

But despite the changes that the government is introducing to Japan, it is quite difficult to find official statistics on how many English speakers in Japan actually exist. 

International education company Education First recently released a survey on where Japan stood among countries that don't speak English as a first language. The study showed that Japan ranked 14th among 44 non-native English speaking countries.

But Ryan Lin, himself an English teacher in Japan, says that this number is far from the truth. 

"First of all, going to school and being taught English are mandatory, but you're not actually required to LEARN anything," writes Lin, who was born in the United States, on his blog. "In some schools, there is very little motivation to learn, and kids just screw around in class all day.

"The teachers, helpless to remove the kids from school, have developed a 'just pass them along' mentality to get the problem students conveyor belted out of the school system," he says.

Self-portrait of Ryan Lin.
Image courtesy
"In other schools that are more stringent and have better kids, it is the teaching style that holds students back from being able to speak English," explains Lin.

"Here, classes mostly emphasize written grammar and vocabulary, caring almost exclusively about spelling and syntax. 

"Following the traditional Confucian style, teachers talk at the students and scribble on the board, while students sit quietly and stare blankly back," he says.

Afterwards, everyone opens the textbook and reads the prepared passage aloud after the teacher, with the teacher translating along the way," he adds. 

"Then they read it again. And again. Then they are timed on how fast (not well) they can read it."

In addition, says Lin, students cannot answer simple questions. "Students will consult with their nearby buddy for half a minute or so before deciding on and answer and choppily spitting it out," he observes. "This is attributed to lack of urgency in learning conversational English, cast aside in favor of "written test" English."

Pronunciation is also a problem in the classroom. "They haven't heard the sounds of actual English very often, so spoken English is difficult for them to understand," he explains. "They're not used to hearing the unusual consonants and vowels that don't exist in Japanese, along with connected speech concepts. 

Flaws in the teaching system

But despite the changes that the government is trying to introduce, Lin says that it is the teaching system that is at fault for the poor state of English among the Japanese.

"These pronunciation troubles are mainly the fault of their teachers," explains Lin. "In my experience, nearly all of the teachers have the same pronunciation problems I mentioned above. They all speak in katakana English (mimicry words using Japanese syllables), which spreads through the ranks of students like a virus."

"English teachers are hired solely for their English ability," he says. "If they can pass a standardized English test, they can become an English teacher. I haven't seen the test itself, but according to their abilities, I'm assuming it isn't that difficult."

Link that to the poor test scores Japanese nationals have when it comes to standardised tests and it's easy to see what he's talking about. But while there aren't many opportunities for the Japanese to speak English, there is plenty of written material available for them. 

"[There are] Lots of bookshops and publishers dealing with English books in Japan," says Yoshiyuki Nakao. "Through Amazon there are no difficulties to access to English books. 

"As far as web is concerned, English is number one," he adds. "We Japanese can read English with ease. There are English programs broadcast in Japan [with] easy access to them. But we have difficulty in orally communicating with foreigners."

And that could be because the Japanese seldom need to use English in daily life.

Population decline

But the Japanese will need to learn English sooner rather than later: Japan is one of the few nations that suffers from population decline. Japan's population shrunk by a record 244,000 in 2013 and is expected to shrink by 20% of the current population by 2020.

This leads to shortages of Japanese nationals of working age, which means they have to look abroad to hire workers.

"In all schools, most teachers can only speak one language: Japanese," says Masayuki. "Most teachers can't speak English so the children of foreign labourers, if those children go to some ordinary Japanese school, they can't have education." 

"Of course, we have some private language schools," adds his father, but "very few people go there because they cannot afford to pay a lot of tuition continually."

Because of Japan's geographic location, communication with the West is seldom possible for Japanese nationals and the government has moved to make signs bilingual in English and Japanese for foreigners.

There are also online forums (see above link) where foreigners in Japan enquire about places where they can find other English speakers and Mr. Nakao encourages the Japanese to attempt to converse in English with these foreign nationals to aid them in speaking the language. 

"I was able to develop my pragmatic communicative ability," he says. "Through a lot of readings I am pleased to say that I got rid of the scared feelings of English.  Go on. [It's] Never too late! 

"Multi-faceted humanities are condensed into English," he adds. "It’s great fun to study English. I would like to share this abundant richness with students."  

English, he says, will help Japan communicate far better with the rest of the world, and help bring to the world Japanese culture.

"Not only [will we] be able to know what’s going on globally, but [it will] also [help] to deepen understanding our Japanese way of thinking and feeling," he says. "Think globally and do locally or vice versa. 

"English is a key to achieving this," he adds. "Japan is able to grow better culturally as well as economically through English. How to cope with Fukushima (as we have done with Hiroshima) is a challenging task we are confronted with right now. 

"This is [an] internationalized problem, a problem we have in common in this small global village. English will connect us together."

Thursday, 9 January 2014

I wouldn't trade my World Cup experience for anything, says Chuck Martini

Former Morocco goalkeeper Chuck
Image courtesy: Twitter
Former Morocco goalkeeper Chuck Martini says that he would never trade his World Cup experience for anything else in the world.

Martini, who is currently the Head Coach of the Muscat Football Academy in the Sultanate of Oman, was called up to represent Morocco at the 1994 FIFA World Cup held in the United States.

"To see all these stars and to see all these household names competing for the greatest prize in world football, of course it's an honour and a fabulous experience," says Martini, who had stints with Leicester City, Wimbledon AFC and Wycombe Wanderers in the UK.

But despite being at the World Cup in the US, Martini's one regret about his time at the World Cup was that he never got to play in it.

"The only disappointing factor is I didn't get no minutes," he says with a laugh. "I was judging it from the bench. 

"I wouldn't have swapped the world for that experience," he adds. "Obviously I would have loved to have tasted it and playing out there in front of the many thousands and the many millions who were watching it on TV but I wasn't to be and it was never to be in terms of a World Cup. 


"I feel blessed that I played professional football, that I was able to represent my national side on a few occasions and it's a massive honour and it's something that I will take to my grave," says Martini, who despite moving to Britain at the age of three, chose to represent his birth nation of Morocco.

Martini received four caps for his country and vividly remembers the emotions associated with his début, a 2-1 win over Gabon.

"I remember how terrified I was," he says. "The reason why I was terrified, I was just thinking 'I'm a
goalkeeper and I just don't want to make a mistake.

"I don't think you feel a sense of pride at the time. You're more nervous about not letting the nation down.

"You don't want to mess up otherwise you don't get the opportunity to play again," he adds. "With a club sort of thing, you can make a mistake, it's only your club.

"But when you make a mistake and it's your country, and people are writing bad things about you, you don't want to picture that."

"I remember, I was nervous until I touched the ball the first time, and then your adrenaline kicks in and it's all about the game," he says.

Club versus Country debate

But despite the honour associated with playing for one's country, the reason clubs are reluctant to let players leave is because they are afraid their players will get injured and hamper their teams.

"Clubs are paying [their] players a fortune and they don't want [them] to go and play in a game that could see [them] get injured, with realistically no real compensation because FIFA rules state that when a national team calls their player(s), they have to go," he explains.

The concern there, he adds is that injuries that players pick up will severely dent a club's hopes of capturing silverware.

"Also, the club look at it from a perspective of business, you know, 'we're paying him so much money, there is no need for him to turn up to an exhibition match'.

"Yes, obviously, [for] World Cup Qualifiers, South American Qualifiers, African Nations Qualifiers, European Qualifiers, fine, but friendlies, they then think 'well no there's no reason for us to be letting our players go, especially our main, core players' and I can understand that," finishes Martini.

"I do not believe the Premier League has any bad managers" - Chuck Martini

Former manager Chuck Martini has said that there are no bad managers in the Premier League as taking over a team in the top-flight of English football requires in-depth knowledge of the game.

Chuck Martini, Head Coach, Muscat
Football Academy
Reproduced with permission
"I do not believe the Premier League has any bad managers. They wouldn't be in that league if they were bad managers," says Martini, who coached Southern League Division One side Godalming Town FC and Ryman Division One team Walton and Hersham FC in the UK.

"They're proven to be managers. People like Mark Hughes who've been sacked in the past, look, every manager will eventually get the sack.


"The Premier League is big business," he explains. "The difference between being in the Premier League and being in the Championship, it is absolutely devastating to a football club.

The most recent manager to get the sack was Scotsman Malky Mackay, who was dismissed after a protracted stand-off with Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan during which time he was told to either resign or face the sack by Tan.

Mackay has since been replaced by former Manchester United legend Ole Gunner Solskjaer.

"There are chairmen out there that are footballing people," says Martini, a member of the League Managers' Association.

"I wouldn't consider the Cardiff chairman a footballing person at the moment but he has an idea," opines Martini. "He's probably brought in Solskjaer to be the coach, he's probably loved him as a player at Manchester United.

"It's his money at the end of the day so he's entitled to bring the coach he wants in," says the former Leicester City keeper. "But as [a] manager, I find it devastating that a manager of Malky Mackay's reputation that has taken the club to that height, to be sacked, not given at least one season in the Premier League.

"I feel that's a little bit harsh, regardless of their recent form or recent results."


But while Martini thinks the sacking of Mackay was harsh, he feels Andre Villas-Boas was unlucky to have been sacked as manager of Tottenham Hotspur because of the pressure he was under.

"Villas-Boas for me has been unlucky in a sense that he managed two very top teams in Europe and in England," he explains.

"As a young coach, it was always going to be difficult to deal with personalities like [Didier] Drogba, [Frank] Lampard, [and John] Terry.

"In my opinion, he didn't man-manage them properly because he could've still gotten something out of those players," he adds. "Allow them to lead a little bit more, play to their egos a little bit more, and [get] the best out of them. I think he was very single-minded.

"He wanted to come in and he wanted to change things and he had his own plan and his own direction. I think Villas-Boas' problem was he was impatient because maybe he thinks he's got to come and achieve it straight away."

"People like Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, the wily old ones that people might think are monsters from the past, they understand the game, they understand personalities," says Martini.

"They understand when a player is ready to go and when you can still get the best out of them. They understand the influence that those players have in that dressing room. 

"As a new coach walking into a football club, I've never ever come and changed everything in one go," he recalls. "It's hard, as much as you may think 'this is not the team that I want' but you have to try and be patient."    

Football development in Americas, Middle East shows global nature of the sport, says Chuck Martini

Chuck Martini, Head Coach, Muscat
Football Academy
Reproduced with permission
Former football manager Chuck Martini says football is becoming increasingly popular in areas such as the Middle East and the United States because the sport has gained popularity throughout the world.

At the close of the Major League Soccer season in the United States, the league's total attendance was over six million. 

The Seattle Sounders broke the record for the highest average home attendance in the league: 44,038 fans arrived at their home, CenturyLink Field, every time the Sounders played.

Popularity of soccer

To put that in some perspective, that is higher that any team in Major League Baseball - with the exception of the Los Angeles Dodgers (46,216) - and more than double the average of Seattle's own baseball team, the Seattle Mariners.

That's 3,500 fans more than the average attendance of Premier League side Sunderland AFC, who had an average attendance of 40,544 fans during the 2012-13 season.

Soccer is now the third-most popular sport as far as attendances go, but Martini, who spent time in the States with Major Indoor League Soccer outfit the Dallas Sidekicks, says this growth is not surprising.

"Although baseball and American football are the number one sports in the USA, the number one played sport is actually soccer," says the former goalkeeper.

"It's the number one played sport by boys and girls. There are more boys and girls playing soccer than playing American football and baseball.

"American football is an American game and baseball has always been an American past-time and an American sport so they always get the preference of coverage," adds Martini, who played for Leicester City, Wimbledon AFC and Wycombe Wanderers in the UK.

USA was an eye-opener

"When I first went to America, for me it was an eye-opener," recalls Martini, who was a member of the Morocco football team that played at the 1994 World Cup in the US.

"I was involved in professional sport from a young age in the UK and when I went to America, the level of training, sports science, that was at a total different level to whatever I saw in the UK.

"It was the first time I'd travelled in a private jet. They had this purpose-built plane for the team to travel from one place to another place.

"Sport is big business in America," he explains. "It has always been, so for me, it was a total eye-opener. In terms of professionalism, I still to this date cannot compare them to anybody else because they are at the top, even with the Premier League.

"When all the top players get injured, half of them are going to America to do rehab so it just gives you a little insight into how far developed they are over there," he says.

"Football is global and with these leagues rising, and when people like (David) Beckham, (Juergen) Klinsmann, Thierry Henry and all that lot went over there, it's given it a bit of a profile now."

But while the MLS is reaching new heights in terms of attendance and image, Martini says that clubs in the Middle East have not yet found the formula for success.

Laid-back attitude

Having successfully coached Southern League Division One side Godalming Town FC and Ryman Division One team Walton and Hersham FC in the UK, Martini has now been named head coach of the Muscat Football Academy in the Sultanate of Oman.

In the past, the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Raul Gonzalez, Fabio Cannavaro and David Trezeguet have all plied their trade in the Middle East but Martini says what is important is that clubs learn to fill out stadiums.

"In the Middle East, it's pretty much a laid back attitude," he explains. "They'd rather sit at home and watch it on TV whereas in Europe, people love going to the game.

"The problem [is] that they still haven't found a formula to that success [which] is getting bums on seats in the stadium," he adds.

The heat does play a part I guess because it's pretty hot all year round and people don't want to go out and feel the extreme heat half of the time."

Having now moved to Oman, Martini has also been appointed Technical Director of Saham Football Club.

Fill stadiums

"The one thing that they are trying to promote is to put bums on seats, is to play in their own purpose-built stadiums" he says. "If you look at the professional league in Oman, they're playing in all the major stadiums, but they're not playing at home.

"You might be from a little town like Saham, but if you've got the whole town supporting the club and coming out, like they do back home in the UK, if you have that integration between your town and the local football club, there's only one way and it's up."

Chuck Martini during his time with Waltham and Hersham FC in the UK. Image courtesy Muscat Football Academy
Martini says he's been to several football games in Oman during his time in the Gulf. "I go and I see an empty stadium," he explains. "I'd rather be in a smaller stadium where I've got 2,000 fans making noise than be in a massive stadium the size of Wembley and 2,000 people watching it."

"If they keep playing in empty stadiums, there's no real passion, there's no real sense of 'we're playing at home today.' Every game is an away game.  

"I think they (the clubs) need to stick to the town mentality: local club, local team and then let it grow to drum up interest within your own areas," he advises. "I think that's the only way that they will succeed."

This mode of success is possible, he says, because apart from the passion that people in the Middle East show towards football, there is plenty of money to invest in the sport.

"I think their infrastructure is sound," says Martini on the provisions for the development of football in the Middle East. "The investment is there and players will go where the money is and in terms of the Gulf, money is not something that is lacking".

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Q&A session with Chuck Martini, Head Coach, Muscat Football Academy

Chuck Martini, Head Coach, Muscat
Football Academy
Reproduced with permission
With the Muscat Football Academy hosting its first training session last Tuesday, I sat down with Head Coach Chuck Martini to discuss the idea behind setting up this academy and his coaching philosophy.

Run by the Al Jarwani Group, Mr. Martini has joined the Academy after managing several English sides including Southern League Division One side Godalming Town FC and Ryman Division One team Walton and Hersham FC,

He was also youth academy coach at Wimbledon AFC. 

Of Moroccan extraction, Mr. Martini was a goalkeeper for Leicester City, having played for them from 1999 to 2001.

He also had stints at Kings Lynn FC, Wycombe Wanderers and Major League Indoor Soccer outfit Dallas Sidekicks. He represented his country on four occasions.

When did the idea for this academy come up?

The plans were drawn up a year ago, exactly to the date (of the interview). I know the Al Jarwani Group and from past experiences when I was a youngster playing professional football, one of the brothers of Sheikh Al Jarwani was studying in the UK so we formed a relationship and kept in touch ever since.

They wanted to open a football academy, similar to Aspire which is in Qatar so I flew out. It was last year, December, and we discussed it, we came up with a few plans and we pretty much signed on the dotted line that it was going to happen.

At that particular time it was due to happen [in] March but there was some red tape that we had to go through.

Getting approval from the Sports Ministry, the Football Association took a little bit of time. I was still managing at the time in the UK, I was managing a club in the Conference Division so I resigned from my post as the manager of the club in February obviously thinking it was going to take place in March.

As things sometimes do, they take a lot of time and I eventually got out here August 19th. We had all the approvals and everything in place.

Related article: Football progress in the Middle East and Americas shows game's global presence

When do you hope to formally start training?

We've actually started. We have 60 students in our academy now. The academy has two different sectors. You have what we would call the elite sector. That won't be up and running until we build our own purpose-built academy. That is in the planning now, it's going to come up somewhere around Mawaleh.

It will be the first professional football academy in Oman. There's never been something like this in Oman and there isn't something like this now, so when we do build our facilities, it will be something to be reckoned with because we will have state-of-the-art facilities.

Our aim is to develop and take players to the next stage and that is professionalism and pushing players to international youth level.

Also, we will have a curriculum where it'll be sports studies in case players don't make the grade as footballers, they have a chance to learn the other side of it, whether its coaching or being involved in the sports industry in some kind of manner.

For now, we're in partnership with a famous school in Muscat. It's called Azzan bin Qais international school We're using their facilities. They have an eight-a-side 4G pitch, swimming pool and an indoor area where we will use in the hot summer months.  

What age groups do you have and what do you teach those different age groups?

We take kids from four years old up to the age of 18. It's pretty much basic training, fundamentals, technique. Also, part of our courses we run, we have a theory side to it as well. We teach them about nutrition, healthy living, but it's very much introduction to playing football the correct way.

A lot of the kids that we've got have been taught to play street football.

You know, go out there's a ball and kick it around. We're trying to organise them a little bit more, understand position, understand roles and the responsibility within every position.

It is pretty much going back to the basics and then developing them that way: trying to build their confidence in ball manipulation, in communication, in understanding different formations. 

When people sign up with our academy, it's for a year and we also train them three times a week because that's the only way we believe we can get the information through to them and it's the only way we'll see improvement.

At what age do you come to know what position a child is suited for?

Good question! We like to try and mould players into playing different positions, into understanding different roles. But me, as a head coach, of course I want a centre forward to stand out, of course I want a creative central midfielder to stand out, of course I want to build a good centre back.

Probably, at the age of 12, 13, 14, you kinda start thinking 'well this person, you can maybe mould him into this kind of player and mould him into this kind of position' but I've known players who've played as a defender until the ages of 18, 19, 20 and all of a sudden, they've been converted into strikers.

I think from a young age you can tell [apart] goalscorers, people who've got that eye for a goal and they've got that predatory instinct of being in the right place at the right time to score a goal. Those kind of positions are easier to discover.

I think midfield, wingers, defenders, especially now, the way football is evolving, different systems that allow defenders to be attacking players. It's pretty much tricky at that time. 

The obvious position other than that is goalkeepers. I think goalkeeper is a specialised position, I sometimes think you have to be born as a goalkeeper and I am an ex-goalkeeper.

I think your hand-eye coordination has to be very good from a young age so that we can develop them into what we hope to be outstanding goalkeepers. People say you've to be mad to be a goalkeeper: diving at people's feet and stuff like that. There's a level of bravery required.

What do you teach kids about fair play and respecting your opponents?

Funny enough you should say that. My first speech when we had an induction was team spirit and that was [to] be supportive to every team member, regardless [of] whether they make a mistake that causes you to lose the game.

[You] must be supportive to one another. I don't believe in team spirit of fighting each other and cussing each other. I believe in encouragement.

I believe in fair play. You must play by the rules. Good question you brought up but it only happened to be part of my first speech when I was making the introduction. I've always said to the players - especially at a younger level - that for me, the result doesn't matter.

We all want to win football matches, of course, they feel happy when they've won but it's not as cut-throat at is it when you're coaching professionally, when you need that result.

Related article: The Premier League has no bad managers

At a younger level I want them to enjoy the game, enjoy participating in it. If we were beaten by the better team, it means they were the better team on the day. It doesn't mean they are the better team, period.

We're going to have good days, we going to have bad days, but its about being together and sticking together and adhering to the rules of the game. I've always been a person that advocates fair play.

What comes after a player finishes at the academy?

When they've reached the ages of 18, we'd like to believe that we've developed them enough, that they're extremely talented, we will push them out to places in Europe to see whether they can fulfil their dream of becoming a professional footballer.

We have various markets that we can send them to, whether it's Europe, whether it's America or whether it's the Gulf market.

Once they've been through a rigorous programme that we've put, and especially a residential programme that we're going to have in place, then we'd like to believe that they're at that that stage where the next level will be professionalism.

There's other avenues as well. I've just formed an alliance with a Canadian university where if they want to continue their education via scholarships and play football in the States or in Canada.

When the concept was given to me and I was asked to be the head of it all, these were concepts I felt have to be in place before anything else can be done.

When they do leave our school, when they do leave our programmes, then there has to be something [for what] their parents have invested in them all through this time.

Related article: Oman to have Middle East's first sports science course

How do you convince kids to play efficiently?

My first briefing to the coaches was 'I want players to express themselves'. I want players to play with freedom. Street football - believe it or not - has probably formed some of the best players in the world, so I would not for one minute want to stop that.

The one thing I want to coach is the correct way of doing things. When you see it done wrong, then it is your obligation as a coach to the student, to the trainee, to teach them how to do it properly.

It's the end product that matters. I've had players that can beat five players and their end product is absolutely rubbish because their shot on goal is nothing, is not a correct shot, or their final ball is not the right ball.

So I put them in and I say to them 'well okay, you've done that fantastically well but what is the final thing that you've done?'.

Chuck Martini during his time with Waltham and Hersham FC in the UK. Picture Courtesy Muscat Football Academy
In order to become a better player, in order to become a player that coaches [and] scouts will take notice of, they don't look at what you've done there. They look at your end product. And what is your end product?

Your end product is that you gave the ball away, your end product is your shot wasn't good enough, your cross wasn't good enough. And therefore, they'll say 'sorry, not good enough'.

It is [about] teaching and coaching children to feel free to express themselves. I don't want to chain them. I don't want to say 'no, you're robots, you can only do this'.

This is a new challenge for me, teaching kids, but I was a kid myself. I've played through all the levels. I know how to develop players, I have an eye for players, I know what it will take to form a player and I want those methods of my experience applied to this academy.

For us, it is freedom of expression, go out there and try. The secret is, if you fail, try. Try and try again. Practise makes perfect.

I've always been someone that believes that enjoyment will create growth. Practise will create excellence.

Related Reading: Following in the steps of Bangladesh's first football academy

Monday, 6 January 2014

Children addicted to junk food, says fitness trainer

A fitness expert says that the current generation of children are addicted to junk food.

Krishna Kumar, a fitness trainer at the Al Falaj Hotel Gym says that the amount of junk food that is given to children has to be controlled.

"The media is developed now. Everywhere you can eat." says Krishna, quoting special offers at restaurants to illustrate what he means. "Even the fathers and mothers are aware. They have also come to know what is there in the food. The children are addicted [to junk food]."

Krishna Kumar, fitness trainer, Al Falaj Hotel Gym. Reproduced with permission
"I will never keep any sweets at home. I [may] want to eat sometime, but I will never keep a bundle of sweets at home," he says. "[For] small children, we have to keep something, that also in limitation. It will be in limited [amounts] of sweets, not like completely buying and giving the children."

Related article: Lifestyle responsible for unhealthy eating habits

Mara Betsch of the Discovery Channel says that junk food hooks kids in when they're still young.

"There's a reason why cartoons appear on sugary cereals, cheesy chips, and other processed foods," she writes. By appealing to kids, food marketers know they are also indirectly appealing to those children's mothers. 

"No mom wants a tempter tantrum in aisle 12, right? Especially with a product like Lunchables, kids feel like picking out their lunch is the one thing they can control in a world where someone tells them when to wake up, how to dress, and where to go." 

"What kids don't realize is that they're teaching their taste buds to respond to high-fat foods and setting themselves up for a lifetime of hard-to-break unhealthy eating habits," she says.

Krishna also advises parents to not give their children money without first asking them what it for, as children may use it for the wrong reasons.

"Don't give money to the children," says Krishna, who has more than 15 year of experience in the fitness world.

"If you give money to the children, you should know where exactly they've used [it]." 

The right eating habits in children, says Krishna, must be inculcated at a very young age.

He says that the parents and teachers of children must repeatedly tell them to do the right things so that it strikes a chord with them.

"The mother will say ten times, school people will say ten times 'do this, do that, eat that'", he explains. "We can reduce it (consumption of junk food) then. Before, people were eating fruits. Before, the father and mother were aware of that because they know how much exactly to eat.

Unhealthy: Junk food such as fried chicken is highly addictive and is now a preferred option to healthy food such as fruit and vegetables, warns Krishna. Image courtesy: Wikipedia.
"They came through that way, that's why they were giving children fruits only," he adds. "Now, the media is developed, lot of junk foods are there, children want tasty food like snacks only. 

Marissa Cohen of American Baby magazine strikes similar notes. Her younger daughter Molly was 18 months old when she was given her first lollipop.

"As she took her first lick, her eyes opened wide as saucers, and she looked at me as if to say, 'mommy, where have these yummy treats been all my life?'," writes Marissa.

"That was just the start," she continues. "Her sister soon introduced her to gummy bears and M&Ms, and now, whenever I offer apples or grapes as an afternoon snack, Molly pouts and says, 'nooo, chocolate!' It's a struggle, but I'm trying to teach her that treats are only a small part of an otherwise balanced diet."

While Krishna says we cannot completely avoid children eating junk food, he says it is important that children engage in calorie-burning exercises to burn the excess calories they ingest through junk food.

"We can tell them to burn calories at school, involve them [in] some activities or evening games, something like that," he says.

"Tell them 'you eat, no problem' but involve them for the activities. Burn the calories. Children can burn calories very easily," concludes Krishna. 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

No place for emotions in medicine, says doctor

A qualified doctor has said that while taking a medical decision, doctors cannot allow emotions to cloud their judgement.

"When you're taking charge of somebody's life, when you have to make a very difficult decision for somebody, you've studied, you know the theory, you know what you have to do," says Dr. Apollina Sharma, who spent the last year completing her medical internship.

Centre: Dr. Apollina Sharma. Reproduced with permission
"When you're in that particular position, you know what you have to do and if you're going to get emotional, you're going to waver [over] your decision," she explains. "If you're taking that responsibility, you have to be practical about it."

Related article: Old people just need company

"It's not that a doctor doesn't feel when something happens, of course you feel, but at that particular moment you have to be strong and you have to make that practical decision. That's what's the important part, that you make the correct decision at the correct time."

"You can't get emotional, you can't follow whatever your head is thinking emotionally because you'll never be able to make a correct decision that quickly and the patient could deteriorate and you don't want that," she finishes.

Old people just need company, says doctor

A medical professional has said that old people who suffer from ailments need company to help keep their spirits up because of their advancing years and poor health.

"I usually find older patients to be depressed with their lives," says Dr. Apollina Sharma, who spent time with them while she was working at the Wenlock Government Hospital in Mangalore, India, during her medical internship.

Dr Apollina Sharma (centre). Reproduced with permission
"I used to get a lot of patients that used to come into psychiatry and even if they come into medicine, they're usually let down," she explains.

Related article: No room for emotion in medicine

"They're not happy psychologically because they have these chronic disease conditions that don't seem to be getting any better or because they just don't have anyone to talk to. That way, it is really hard [for them]."

"I remember spending time with this one particular patient that I had because I wanted to know exactly what was the problem, why was she reluctant to take her medicines, why did she have such a negative outlook on life," she recalls.

Related article: Proper histories mean optimum patient care

Apollina says that it is the company of others that old people need the most.

"Instead of prescribing medications, old people, usually, you just need to speak with them," she says. "So I took time out and I spoke to her. I got to know a little bit about her problems and they just want someone to talk to.

"At that age, they need care and they need attention because their health is deteriorating. They're not as fit and fine as young-age people, so naturally they need someone."

Related Reading: Ethics paramount while dealing with children

Indian govt. hospitals understaffed and undersupplied, says doctor

A doctor who spent the last year working at government hospitals in India says that such hospitals are often understaffed and suffer from a shortage of supplies and medical equipment.

Dr. Apollina Sharma, who worked at the Lady Goschen, Wenlock and KMC Attavar hospitals in Mangalore says that this greatly affects patient care.

In fact. shortage of staff and equipment at hospitals in India plagues more than 40% of primary health centres in the country.

"In a government hospital, we don't have enough pain medication," says Dr. Apollina Sharma. "Sometimes, doctors don't even have gloves. We don't have enough cotton. We don't have enough machines to look at more that two critical patients at a time."

Dr. Apollina Sharma (centre) and her colleagues. Reproduced with permission
"Sometimes, the same machine is going to the wards, sometimes it is coming back to the labour theatre," says Dr. Sharma, who spent the last completing a medical internship in the Indian city of Mangalore.

"Supposing two patients have to be monitored, you have to pick and choose which ones have to be monitored and you have to be on constant rota duty."

This she says was painfully noticeable when she was in the operating theatre assisting in the birth of babies.

"Technically, sanitary and health-wise, you're supposed to change your gown, your gloves, everything, between each delivery because that's the hygienic thing to do," she explains.

"Because we were so understaffed, what used to happen was that I would be delivering a baby and the other baby would start coming at the other end," she says. 

"I would deliver this baby, run, rush, deliver that one, deliver the third one, deliver the fourth one.

"I was not changing my gloves," she says. "Sometimes, I've even delivered a baby with my bare hands, because we just didn't have gloves to wear."

Because the hospital was so understaffed, says Apollina, doctors were unable to ensure that patients observed proper medical protocol with patients.

"Before delivery, we tell the patient to go and urinate at least one and a half to two hours before delivery. There's a process," she explains. "There was a woman who didn't listen to us and because we were so understaffed, we were taking care of all the other patients."

"She went to the bathroom right when her delivery happened and we had to rush to the bathroom to deliver the baby," she recalls. "It's such an unsanitary place."

A phone call to confirm with Lady Goschen Hospital regarding what Apollina had said confirmed the same, but both Wenlock and KMC Attavar hospitals were unavailable for comment.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Lifestyle responsible for present generation being unhealthy, say fitness experts

"Faster! Come on! Take a challenge!" screams fitness trainer Nandana Dissanayake as he puts the latest attendees of his fat-burning class through the motions at the Al Falaj Hotel gym in Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman..

There are about eight people in his one-hour session today, and they're all there only to lose weight.

Speaking to me after the class, Nandana says that obesity is a problem that is rampant amongst today's youngsters. He blames parents of children for this problem.

"The parents, mostly they don't have much time to take care of, or talk to, or play with their kids," says the 40-year-old, when discussing why it is more common to see kids playing video games instead of engaging in physical activities in open spaces.

"So they go [for] something like this, but actually you can't blame the children for this. This mainly has to [be] controlled by their parents." 

His colleague Krishna Kumar agrees with him. "If you have the father and mother aware of fitness and the food control, that is how you do it in the home. Children first, you have to motivate the children."

"Sixty to seventy percent of fathers and mothers are not keeping time for the children," he adds. "They have to keep some time for the children to give the advice.

The father also [must] be aware of his health. He is going for fitness training, he also has to think [about the] children also, how they become involved for that exercise.

"The mother has to identify [if] the child is getting fat. The mother has to identify [this] to control their food," he continues. "The mother is going to buy things from the market. She can identify what exactly she's buying."

Related article: Children addicted to junk food

Nandana Dissanayake, Fitness trainer, Al Falaj Hotel Gym. Nandana puts groups of individuals through a series of fat-burning exercises thrice a week. Reproduced with permission

Video games and junk food

Video games, the trainers explain, are only one part of this vicious cycle. Junk food makes people lazy and that in turn dissuades them from going outside to play. 

"Now, people [are] used to eating 'instant' products," explains Nandana. "Before, we were not trying to fill our tummies. We were trying to [eat] at least something healthy."

But he says this will only come if parents tell their kids what is healthy. "Parents must be behind [their kids] and they have to tell them to eat at least the right [things]," he adds.

Parents have to be behind the children [to get them to eat] all the nutritious things," says Nandana, who is a qualified instructor from the International Sport Sciences Association in the United States.

"What the kids are eating, what they prefer to eat, what they prefer not to eat," he continues. "Children have to [be] given a menu, like our parents were doing, always behind us [saying], 'eat this, eat that, eat this'. Nowadays, actually, parents are so busy."

"They come [home] in a school bus, parents are not there, nannies are there and they are eating whatever is there. [Then they're] going to sleep, going to [their] PlayStations [and] computers. The lifestyle has changed, it's not like before. You cannot compare before and now."

Krishna Kumar, who prefers working with his clients via one-on-one interaction. Reproduced with permission
"Nowadays, [the] father and mother are not allowing them to go for some activities in the school," adds Krishna, himself a former Physical Education teacher. "In school, they have to play around."

"The main thing [is] the father and mother have to motivate them, they have to say to them to go for some activities in the school. Secondly, the teachers have to force them"

"Now, KFC is there, Pizza Hut is there, lot of junk food is there now," He says. "That's why people are drinking Pepsi. Always, you can see the can with the children, and the school authorities, before, they were giving lots of chips and Pepsi from the canteen."

"This is very addictive for the children, they're making you lazy," he finishes.

The adverse effect of this, says Nandana, is what contributes to obesity. It is this lack of activity that blunts their all-round progress, which in turn means that while they are living, they are not alive in its truest form.

This obesity takes a toll on people's bodies, which stunts all-round participation.

"Before, [the] majority of the people were active, because of playgrounds. Some activity was there. That is not there [now], most children are very slow. It is very dangerous for the future."

Governments are trying to change this pattern. In the UK the Public Health Responsibility Deal is ensuring that the government works hand in hand with private companies to help create a healthier population.

Over in the United States, in 2010, Congress passed reforms that contain several measures to stop obesity.

As a result of this, 16 of the world's biggest fast food companies slashed a combined total of more than 6.4 trillion calories from their products, with aims to cut a further 1.5 trillion by 2015.

What to eat

Nandana also explains how people must eat food. "We have to find out what are the carbohydrate foods, what are the proteins, what are the fats," he says. Balance can be achieved by managing the consumption of these foods, he adds.
Nandana putting people through his fat-burning routine. He tells me that people today are obese because of their lifestyle. Reproduced with permission

"The generation that is going on nowadays, the way it is going, anybody can get any disease because always we are eating instant food," he explains. "You cannot get without fertilisers. The food, nowadays, you cannot trust."

"Always, you have to read the ingredients. What is the calorie content, what is the fat content, you have to read them. If you do those things, you will not get harm to your body."  

Governments have already moved to enforce a proper labelling system. With 61.9% of adults and 28% of children between two and 15 years old already obese in the UK, the government has introduced a front of pack labelling system to indicate what food contains.

In the States, it was found out that one in six people bought healthier food after a labelling system was introduced on junk food.

"Comparing with the previous generation," says Krishna, who holds a Masters degree in Physical Education. "Everybody is thinking 'they have some fitness'. The fitness is there because of the lifestyle for them. They controlled the food system, that time not much junk food is there, they are eating fresh food."

"If you take some of the junk food, they (the manufacturers) are not mentioning there how many calories will be there," he continues."Whatever product they are giving they have to mention. They have to identify and mention how many calories will be there in the food."

"When the mother is cooking, she will come to know that 'I cannot use this much oil'," explains Krishna. "This will help the child not to get fat [and] get good health.

"But when outside people are coming and cooking, they want to finish the job and go. What we can do exactly, we can tell them 'see, you have to cook only these things'."


But Nandana also adds that today's young adolescents also become more aware of their unhealthy eating habits as they grow up and leave their childhood behind.

It is during their teens when the signs of independence are first stirring that many develop an interest in hitting the gym in an effort to burn off calories.

This is also because it is during their late teens that children finish school and are normally therefore allowed more freedom to discover things for themselves.

"Because of the lifestyle [of] the parents, they don't have much time to spend with the children so because of that they are giving money to the children to join the gym," says Nandana.

Both trainers tell me that today's children become more aware of the importance of diet and exercise once they finish school, which is normally when they gain more independence than they previously had.  Reproduced with permission
"Children of 13,14 years, most of the gym is not allowed because they [have] not grown up," he explains. "Their bone condition, their skeleton is not [as] grown up [as] their elders.

"But still, some children, financially if they [are] able to take gym membership, they are going for cardio (cardivascular exercises), especially, to enjoy the atmosphere, the swimming pool, other games. Still, gym training is not advisable," he explains.

"Now they are [becoming aware], but after 16, because of the 12th standard," says Krishna. Class 12 is when children in the Middle East and large parts of Asia normally finish their schooling. He says that previous generations were not as enthusiastic about fitness are today's young adults are.

Krishna explains that today's generation, once they finish school, become a lot more aware about fitness. "Lot of people are coming. I can identify how people are coming for membership (to the gym).

"They are coming forward, but mostly, they don't know exactly where to start, where to stop. That advice they have to take from the proper trainer."

Related article: Mind over matter, says fitness trainer

Nandana says that when it comes to working out, one must not lose hope easily. "Mostly if someone trains under the trainer, the trainer must encourage them," he says. "Their parents or their brothers, sisters or friends [should] encourage them, always motivation is important.

"Someone is putting some efforts to come to some level of fitness or come to some level of their activity, some encouragement [and] pushing is very important," he continues. "To self-dedicate is also important. Without enjoying your exercise or activity, you're not getting the right results"

"Self motivation plus confidence, commitment, dedication is very important."