A lot of people’s knowledge of netball is fairly limited. Many women (those hailing from the UK, at least) will have played it at school, while men usually view it as a bit like basketball but without the bouncing. Indeed, many men simply dismiss the game without a second thought. After all, what use do they have for a sport that seems to be played exclusively by the fairer sex and doesn’t involve macho phrases such as ‘slam dunk’?
Yet here in Dubai, netball isn’t only played by girls subject to the British education system – it’s enjoyed by real adult women and, to many people’s slack-jawed surprise, by men. There’s a thriving netball scene in the city that involves scores of teams and hundreds of players, as Helena Houia of the Dubai Netball League explains.
Helena, a 31-year-old Kiwi, came to Dubai in 2006. Having played netball in New Zealand, she was keen to continue here and soon got in touch with Dubai Netball League. ‘It was a much smaller scene back then,’ remembers Helena. ‘We used to play at the old Exiles ground, which only had two courts.’
In the five years since Helena arrived in Dubai, the league has come on leaps and bounds and now features 23 teams, each of about 15 people. ‘We don’t often get complete beginners,’ admits Helena when we ask what kind of people turn up to play, ‘It’s usually girls who have played before at some level.’ She explains that novices usually get involved in the more casual Duplays league, though the DNL does cater for players of all different abilities and ages. ‘We get a lot of girls from the international schools, as well as older girls,’ she adds.
This isn’t to say that the Dubai Netball League doesn’t welcome social players. The league is split into three divisions: Division 1 is fiercely competitive and for players of a high standard; Division 2 slightly less so; while Division 3 caters for ladies who want to play for a bit of fun, meet people and get fit.
These latter two aspects, explains Helena, are the biggest attractions of netball. This could be said of many amateur team sports, but what makes netball unique is that it’s geared towards women – a nice alternative to spin classes and yoga. ‘The social side is a big part of the netball scene – there are regular functions, so it’s a great chance to meet people.’
This month, Helena and the Dubai Netball League committee are preparing for the Inter-Gulf Netball Championships in March. Founded 23 years ago, the tournament is now a prestigious fixture on the international circuit and features around 25 teams from all over the region. About 220 players are expected to take part, and the DNL is currently recruiting players and raising funds for what is hoped will be a successful campaign. On February 25 there’s a fundraising tournament at The Sevens, in which anyone can compete, or just go down to watch and enjoy the social occasion.
The Inter-Gulf also offers the opportunity for men to get involved – the DNL sends a men’s team. ‘Oh, they take it very seriously,’ says Helena. ‘They have a coach and everything.’ For the less-competitive netballing men, there’s a summer social league that features co-ed teams. But where do they find all these male netball players? ‘I don’t actually know,’ chortles Helena, though she assures us that they stop short of wearing skirts when competing.
The netball fundraising tournament is on February 25; for more details email email@example.com or see www.dubainetballleague.com. The 2011 Inter-Gulf Netball Championships takes place in Al Ain on March 4-5 2011. For info, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Netball in numbers
The year netball is thought to have been invented
Number of players on a team
The year of the first international netball tournament
Official length in metres of a netball court
Final score of first international netball match, between Australia and New Zealand in 1938
Minimum distance in centimetres that a defending player must maintain between themselves and the ball-carrier
Height of a netball goal post in metres
The year when netball became an Olympic-recognised sport, though it is yet to become an Olympic event