DUBAI // The curtain-raiser to the football season will have a very different look next week: it is being played at a cricket stadium, where fans are promised it will make them see the game from a new perspective. The UAE Football League (UFL) Super Cup game between Al Ahli and Al Ain on Wednesday will see Dubai Sports City's Cricket Stadium used for a different sport for the first time, showcasing the versatility of an arena that is being lined up as the city's premier music and entertainment venue.
Preparation for the event has taken a month, with the baked-earth wicket grassed over and boundary rope removed. Now there is a pitch with goalposts, corners and penalty boxes. Its bowl shape, where all seats will face the centre of the pitch, and the lack of home and away terraces may make for a less partisan atmosphere, but this promises to help make it a unique footballing spectacle. With Pakistan due to host New Zealand at the stadium next month, cricket fans could be forgiven for being concerned about the ground cultivating new sporting pastures but according to the head curator, Tony Hemmings, some of the world's best known grounds have embraced a wide array of sporting codes and entertainment events.
"In major stadiums in Australia it is common for somewhere like the Melbourne Cricket Ground to be used for a variety of events in the same week," he said. There could be several international sports fixtures over the same weekend. "Imagination is the only limit to the events that could be staged at the stadium." he said. "I had the luxury of having a month to prepare for this game but it is possible to host four different events on four consecutive days, if I was asked to. Whatever event is being staged, protecting the ground is always my prime objective."
He added: "We have invested in 2,500 square feet of multi-purpose flooring to enable the ground to host music events and even stunt shows. But the main consideration will always be to protect the cricket pitch. Hosting other events is actually positive because it will bring in revenue to re-invest in the ground's core purpose." The groundsman's team has been working closely with the competing clubs and the UFL to ensure the ground is ready for the match. Mr Hemmings said that strict Fifa standards had been adopted and the surface would suit a passing game.
"The tests we have carried out show that it is of a higher standard than Al Wasl, which staged this fixture last year. Generally the preparation of the soil and grass for cricket is higher than for football and therefore I think the players will enjoy the surface." The circular design is in stark contrast to the typical rectangle of football stadiums, and will provide the fans with panoramic views. Luca Baldanza, marketing and communications manager for the UFL, said the stadium's design was the key factor in choosing it as the venue for the match.
"One of our objectives for our signature games is to provide a unique visual look for the fans. The Sports City ground certainly provides this and the venue and the facilities are world-class." He added that feedback from the clubs and the fans was "that they are excited about the game and think it will be an exciting spectacle". Players were always motivated by playing in a new stadium and new surroundings, he said. "Another advantage for us was the excellent VIP facilities at the ground. We considered the viability of hosting the fixture at the Sevens Stadium, but Sports City has the edge as it is a permanent structure."
Last year the fixture, which pits the current league champions against the cup winners the equivalent of the Charity Shield in England - was held at the 12,000-capacity Al Nasr Stadium. The Dubai Sports City Cricket Stadium has more than double that capacity and the UFL is looking for an increase in spectators to 18,000, using 70 per cent of its capacity. An allocation of tickets for the fixture on September 23 was released to both clubs today. Tickets will also be available on the day of the game. The match starts at 8.30pm and will be followed by a light and laser show.