(This feature was first published in August 2018)
For most 24-year-olds, making it as a professional footballer is a distant, unreachable dream.
For Baraa Lulu, that dream is increasingly close to becoming a reality.
Like many talented footballers across the UAE, Baraa, a Palestinian from Gaza who lives in Abu Dhabi, has been displaying his skills at local amateur clubs and competitions for several years.
Things changed quickly when he, alongside other university students, was selected to be part of the AFC Asian Cup 2019 Local Organising Committee’s “Home Team”, tasked with spreading the message of the 24-nation tournament taking place in the UAE from January 5.
“It all started with a big coincidence,” Baraa, speaking to FourFourTwo Arabia at Ahdaaf Sports Club in Dubai, said of the moment that kick-started an unforgettable summer.
“I was introduced to Tango League through my internship for the AFC Home Team. [After that] adidas invited me to take part in the second Dubai Tango League competition.”
His modest demeanour masks the fact there was a little more to it than a mere introduction.
In fact, while taking part in the three-month Home Team internship programme, Baraa was spotted displaying outrageous football skills and asked to participate in the second edition of adidas Tango League Dubai on June 13.
The 3 v 3 “cage football” competition is a platform for some of the most creative young footballers between the age of 16 and 25 from all corners of the UAE, and others from Saudi Arabia, to showcase their freestyle skills within a team structure.
The rewards for the winning team, and particularly the best player, are spectacular.
In October, 2017, the winners of the first adidas Tango League Dubai were invited to meet Real Madrid ahead of their FIFA Club World Cup outing in Abu Dhabi, taking part in an official photoshoot with players such as Karim Benzema, Nacho, Lucas Vazquez and Raphael Varane.
Meanwhile the Most Valuable Player (MVP), Yahya Al Ghassani, travelled to Moscow in November as a guest of adidas for a friendly between Russia and Argentina, and to witness the launch of the official World Cup ball, Telstar 18.
Though his team was knocked out in the semi-final of the second edition of adidas Tango League Dubai, Baraa was outstanding throughout, unanimously winning the MVP award from a panel of judges.
The prize this time was a once in a lifetime trip to Russia to watch the World Cup final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Baraa was also faced with the opportunity to go head-to-head with other adidas Tango League winners from around the world for a spot in a former Real Madrid and Liverpool legend’s Tango Squad FC.
“Winning the best player award gave me the opportunity to join the other 23 MVPs from around the world to try and make the Tango League team under Xabi Alonso,” Baraa said. “And we had the chance to watch the World Cup final, which was a fantastic experience.”
France’s 4-2 win over Croatia may have been the highlight of the trip, but just as thrilling for Baraa and his fellow freestylers was interacting with some of the world’s most famous footballers and former World Cup winners.
“We met football legends like Kaka, Cafu and Podolski, as well as celebrities like Sean Garnier, the best freestyler in the world, and the F2 [freestylers Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch],” he said.
Having got a taste for football at its most elite, Baraa’s ambitions have skyrocketed.
My plans this pre-season were to graduate from a semi-professional to a professional footballer,” Baraa said. “And God willing with the help of adidas, I’ve gone a long way towards achieving that.”
At the final world cup game ?? VS ?? !!! Palestino alll theeee wayyyyy ????!!! Hope one day i can represent and play for my national team in this big event ??!!! Qatar 2022 ?? let the world know that this is my next mission/Challenge ?!!! #russia #moscow #uae #palestine #fifa #world #cup #final #match #live #??#?? #adidas #football #experience #isthebest #Tangoleague #heretocreate #AfcHomeTeam
The start of the new UAE football season is a month away but Baraa has been keeping himself fit by taking part in his own training programme as he looks to a future in football.
“I’ve received several offers from UAE clubs, so I’m now considering them, while I continue my personal training so I’m ready when the time comes,” he said.
Having come so far in such a short period of time, Baraa is now in a hurry to chase his dreams. One in particular, is bigger than all the others.
“My dream is to represent Palestine at the 2019 Asian Cup taking place in the UAE,” Baraa said. “Hopefully there is still a chance to make the national team and perform to the best of my ability.”
From intern to the AFC Asian Cup finals may seem a tall order. But seeing how his life has changed in a few short months, no one is stopping Baraa Lulu from dreaming big.
Baraa’s Predator Tango boots are part of adidas Football’s Team Mode Pack which includes the X18+ and Predator 18+
With thanks to Ahdaaf Sports Club for use of their facilities