While we at Time Out Kids had, of course, heard of Kevin Keegan, we were unacquainted with his Soccer Circus concept. It all sounded a little odd. Did we have to dress up as clowns and juggle footballs? Would we be up against a team of elephants wearing England strips? Would controversial referees be fired out of canons? None of the above is true, in case you’re wondering. What it is, this brainchild of the former England and premier league manager, is a physical, high-tech, interactive soccer gaming facility. A cross between a gymnasium, soccer academy and computer game, Soccer Circus opened last month at Playnation, Mirdif City Centre – and we’re already big fans, especially as Keegan himself is in town to show us the ropes.
Deceptively small from the outside, entering Soccer Circus is like walking into a cavernous sports centre, with changing facilities, lockers, three five-a-side pitches and a shooting arena with spectators’ gallery. We begin downstairs with the individual football challenges, where our ball control, dribbling, shooting and passing skills are put to the test. Across four stations, each player gets 45 seconds to aim or control the ball over a series of lights and the computer keeps track of everyone’s scores, tallying the team’s total at the end. The technology is all very swish – including the pre-game pep talk from a rather brusque Scottish coach – but there are plenty of experienced staff on hand to offer tips and pointers.
Not that we need them. We have ‘King Kev’ on the Time Out team. He’s definitely drawn the short straw, joining a girlie bunch of which only one of us has ever attempted to play ‘proper’ football. But don’t forget, this is the man who not only won European Footballer of the Year, but also held the top coaching job in English soccer, so he knows what he’s doing and is, unsurprisingly, a great motivator. He’s instantly on our case – barking instructions, clapping his hands and gee-ing us up. We certainly need it. ‘It’s just like dancing!’ he quips, bouncing on his toes and twirling his feet as I attempt to control the ball over a circle of ever-moving lights. ‘Behind you!’ he shouts, sounding like an over-enthusiastic dad at a pantomime as I manage to mislay the ball in the dribbling zone. It’s no good. I’m rubbish. Try as I might, I just can’t suppress the urge to pick the darn thing up with my hands and plonk it on the targets. Of course, this being football (of the non-American variety), that’s strictly not allowed. Keegan is patiently understanding. ‘Never mind! Just put the ball down and kick it!’ he yells (probably not a phrase oft used on the touchlines at Newcastle United). When it comes to his turn, he proves he can still cut it as a player too – astounding us with his control (he knocks out 26 lights in 45 seconds compared to my measly three), pace and finesse. This chap may be approaching 60, but boy, he’s still got it. ‘I’m not as fit as I once was, but I still enjoy it,’ he says, only slightly out of breath.
We finish up with an incredibly therapeutic game of Power Play. To the roar of the (computer-generated) crowd, we blast automatically-delivered balls against a line-up of multi-coloured defenders. It’s a bit like a giant, kicking version of tenpin bowling, although that doesn’t quite do it justice. Heartily recommended as a tension-reliever, we cull all but two defenders and leave feeling chuffed and invigorated. If mums in their 30s have this good a time, Soccer Circus will go down a storm with kids and dads.
‘It’s fun for everyone from age six to 60, 70 or 80,’ agrees Keegan. ‘It’s good exercise, and while it’s not as serious as a soccer academy, it certainly requires skill, and it gives kids an alternative to sitting at home on the computer, fiddling with a mouse, so it ticks a lot of boxes.’
And it’s not just for the soccer-daft. ‘If your kid is not into football, he’s not going to get much of a kick in a normal game and he’s going to come back miserable. Here, you can mix girls and boys, you have no player contact, and for 45 seconds it’s about doing the best you can. You are the star of the show. You’re the one playing. The person you’re challenging the most is yourself.’ Keegan adds, ‘The great thing about Soccer Circus is you can see your progress on each station, you’ve got a target and you can try to do better next time. Practice makes perfect though – the more you play, the better you get.’
An ideal venue for an energetic birthday party, Keegan hopes it won’t be just kids that use the facilities, stressing it’s a great venue for corporate team-building, family bonding and, importantly, schools.
‘In the UK, we work a lot with schools and teachers, we educate the kids on nutrition and what to eat before and after exercise, because there is a problem with diet, lack of exercise, a lack of facilities and the lack of will to go out and actually do it.’
The Dubai branch is Keegan’s third Soccer Circus – there’s one in Scotland and one in the north of England – but even he admits it’s ‘a bit special’. ‘It’s a magnificent setup here in Dubai – this is definitely our flagship.’
(800 LEISURE/5347873); www.soccercircusme.com. Open Sun-Wed 10am-11pm, Thu-Fri 10am-midnight. Dhs80 per adult, Dhs55 per child less than 1.2m. Pitch rental Dhs400 (off peak) or Dhs520 (peak) per hour.