The passions aroused by Abu Dhabi's football derby are fed by loyalties going back several decades. As the new Pro League season kicks off, John Henzell reviews the rivalry between the Al Jazira and Al Wahda clubs. The veterans who played football on sand pitches in Abu Dhabi in the 1960s could never have envisaged the mighty stadiums where the game is now played. But amid the trappings of a professional league and the eight-figure pay cheques for imported players, they would recognise one aspect of the game that has survived since those early days - the extra edge to any match between the island's biggest rivals.
Kefah al Kaabi has experienced this heightened passion for more than 40 years, first as a player for Al Ittihad, one of the half-dozen amateur teams on the island, and then as a commentator at derby matches between the capital's two professional clubs, Al Jazira and Al Wahda, who compete in the 12-side national football league that kicks off next weekend. "Ever since it started, it was a fierce competition," he recalls.
Some observers are predicting the next Abu Dhabi derby, to be hosted by Al Jazira at Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium on October 19, will be even more fiercely contested than usual as a result of recent activities on and off the field. Al Wahda, which plays at Al Nahyan Stadium, has generally had the edge over Al Jazira in recent seasons, but in last year's league, Al Jazira's imported Brazilian striker, Fernando Baiano, helped reverse that trend, scoring 25 goals in the league - more than twice as many as his Al Wahda counterpart - including the first in a 4-0 rout of Al Wahda the last time the sides met.
But while Al Jazira were stalling in negotiations to renew Baiano's contract, Al Wahda pounced and signed him themselves. In turn, Al Jazira signed another Brazilian striker, Ricardo Oliveira, for a UAE-record fee of 14 million (Dh72.5m). Just who got the better of those dealings will be one of the many subplots on October 19. For al Kaabi, though, the intense rivalry between the two clubs mirrors the attitudes that existed when he began playing while barely in his teens, before oil revenues really began to transform the newly formed UAE. "In the 1970s, if you signed for a club, that was it - the club owned you," he says. "It's your house or your home and your family. Changing clubs is almost like you're not Muslim any more.
"At that time, they used their imagination to give you emotion to play stronger. When they'd talk to you before the game, it was, 'This is your family. You wouldn't let someone go to your house and go to your wife. This is your family and you have to fight.' We enjoyed that time. The passion for football and the love of football sticks with you." The Abu Dhabi derby follows in the tradition of footballing rivalries worldwide, where proximity and familiarity have fuelled the competitiveness among teams and their fans to the point where they sometimes behave as if they are battling for their existence rather than local bragging rights.
The passions of the clash in the capital have never reached the levels of the game's most famous derby, the Superclasico between Buenos Aires neighbours Boca Juniors and River Plate, which has been going for more than 100 years and is now played in front of more than 60,000 screaming fans. Other derbies are only slightly less intense, such as the clashes between Spanish rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona, Glasgow's Celtic and Rangers, and in dozens of other regional match-ups.
As al Kaabi explains, the passion behind the competition prompted an alignment with one club, which was then followed, win lose or draw. When the clubs amalgamated to form the two present sides - Al Bateen and Al Khalidiyah to form Al Jazira in 1974, and Emirates and Abu Dhabi to form Al Wahda 10 years later - their fans' affiliations followed without diminishing their fervour. "In Abu Dhabi, you had to be one of these clubs," he says. "You had to be Al Jazira or you had to be Al Wahda."
For Ali Alsaloom, an Abu Dhabi-based cultural adviser and self-described Al Jazira obsessive, affiliations to either club are "embedded in our DNA". "It's like Barcelona and Real Madrid. We're all in the same emirate. Part of it is the fact we're so close," he says. "Every single game became a rivalry." The rivalry is heightened by Al Wahda's three national football league titles since 1999 while Al Jazira has remained bereft of domestic silverware. "We've yet to win the championship," Alsaloom adds. "Everyone knows that very well."
With Baiano's help, Al Jazira had been on course to correct that glaring omission and had been leading the league for part of last season, only to be beaten into second place by the Dubai-based Al Ahli club. "We have a saying: 'If luck was a man, we'd have killed him by now'," Alsaloom adds. "It's just outrageous." When al Kaabi made his debut for Al Ittihad in 1973, the UAE was a much less affluent place. "We didn't get paid," he recalls. "You played for the fun of the game back then and you paid money from your own pocket to watch. We did that because we loved it."
The rivalry between the capital's football teams, while always strong, has had its ebbs and flows. In the late 1990s, passions were riding particularly high, causing some disorder between the fans when the sides met on the field. Since then, Al Wahda has begun to put more effort into its footballing academy, while Al Jazira has broadened its reach into other sport and cultural activities. Khaled Awadh, Al Wahda's deputy chief executive, agrees the rivalry has become less heated since the late 1990s peak, but attributes that, in part, to a maturing of Abu Dhabi's football fans and the arrival of a television channel dedicated to the sport. "In the 1990s, the rivalry was strong. Now it's not as strong as before," he says. "But wherever you go in the world and there are two clubs, you'll see this [rivalry]. It's like Liverpool and Everton. They're in the same city and it's always the same.
"People started to understand and to be more educated from 2000. The new TV sport channel makes people in the country wise and more understanding. We've matured." When the original clubs were formed, each one's support was based mainly on where people lived in what was then the modestly sized town of Abu Dhabi, Awadh explains. Because extended families often lived near each other, they would usually support one or the other team.
Al Kaabi says the oil wealth that has since flowed into the capital has had a two-fold effect on the clubs and their fans. When he began playing, the Dubai- and Sharjah-based teams had a considerable advantage because both emirates were far more developed than Abu Dhabi, and only a few players from the capital would be selected to represent the national side. "With the oil and the money that came, the quality of the players changed and they started thinking about Abu Dhabi. The thinking changed in the 1970s. The clubs in Abu Dhabi started doing much more to become big names. They had to work double to get to the level of clubs in Dubai and Sharjah.
"People who love football will always love football, but back then, there was one general television channel to watch and only one market you could go to. Now I have thousands of TV channels, including hundreds of sport channels. I have a computer so I can see anything at any time. "Times have changed. Now there are people who like football but when they don't see it, they have European and English football. Here, if they see it, it's fantastic but if they don't see it, it doesn't matter."
Football has been a lifelong passion for al Kaabi, who was the former head of the sport section at Emarat Al Youm newspaper and is now a commentator on Dubai Sports Channel and the football talk show Saada al Malad. But he realises not everyone is quite as committed. "Everything has changed. People who loved football in that time didn't have that many things to do. Right now, they love football, but they love three or four other things, too.
"Now we call the world a small village. I could see Real Madrid, I can see my lovely club Manchester United; 10 to 12 years ago, I couldn't do that. We'd get one game in the English league each week." Even when al Kaabi was playing, the best players were imported, though not in the way they are now. Instead of being Brazilian strikers on massive salaries, they might be physical education teachers from the then much richer Gulf state of Bahrain, or workers from Sudan and Tanzania.
"Bahrainis had much more experience and much better quality at that time. Mostly they came to work as teachers and after a while we'd bring them in. "They didn't come for football, they came for something else. I remember my team's best player was a Sudanese player and then they started coming from Tanzania - they were the best foreign players. [The club] was like a small house in Medina Zayed, with a few rooms and that's all. There was no grass. They put up two goals and you could start with that.
"Al Jazira brought much better players and coaches from outside. They had a much better field; we were playing on sand and they were playing on a green field. They had much better money, although everything was poor because this was before oil." The nature of life in Abu Dhabi at the time meant he was friends with all of his Emirati teammates and familiar with the history of each of their families.
Football provided a good outlet for his energy and enthusiasm. "The game saved us at that time," he said. "I believe that if I hadn't had fun with the game, I could have been one of those guys on the street who drink or have problems with girls or whatever. Football then was purely for enjoyment. Now football is a business. But if something comes from the heart, it goes to the heart. In each time, there are people who love football for the love of the game. Always there are believers."
Belief backed by oil money was now giving the emirate the chance to build a football team equal to any other in the world, although al Kaabi remains realistic about how fast that might happen. "There were a few people who started football in Abu Dhabi with very little money. But these few people saw the level of football being played in England and they went for that dream. "These people were talented. We did in 20 years what everyone else did in 100 years, but we're still short. We'll still need another 20 years to be at the top level. In 20 years, I'm very optimistic."