ABU DHABI // Last night's curtain-raiser for the Fifa Club World Cup proved disappointing for Al Ahli fans as they saw their team - and country - shut out of the rest of the 11-day football festival after a 2-0 loss to Auckland City. With the dream of a matchup with the European champion Barcelona FC dashed, Mohammed Ahmed Shaker, a devout Al Ahli supporter who had predicted a 3-0 victory for his club, said he still looked forward to the rest of the event.
"It was sad in that they didn't have soul," said Mr Shaker, 30. "I think that for the tournament and the organisation everything was very nice. Everything was good except for the team." Although his team lost, he planned to take in the Barcelona FC match with the winner of the Atlante and Auckland City pairing. "I hope the rest goes well and I will support it," he said, "because at the end of the day you have to be proud to have this tournament in our country."
Despite a small turnout - official attendance in the 42,000-capacity Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium was pegged at 14,806 - the crowd was decidedly pro-Ahli and vocal in its support. The fans whistled at the Auckland City players' arrival on the pitch and then chanted throughout the match, the cheering led by a dedicated section of Al Ahli supporters on the first level of the ground who beat drums and played horns.
The regular Al Ahli supporters were bolstered by support from other clubs, such as Al Ain, who threw their support behind the Dubai club. "Usually I support Al Wahda," said Maen al Aulaqi, 16, who had received a ticket from Abu Dhabi International School. "But they represent the UAE." Even neutrals such as Domenic Antonucci from Australia had been pulling for Al Ahli. "I live here now so I'll follow the local team," said the business consultant who had been living in Abu Dhabi since January. "I am loyal to my second home."
Long before the first goal went in for Auckland City moments before the half-time whistle and Al Ahli came within a few feet of striking right back, excitement was building for five other continental club champions, including Barcelona from Spain and Estudiantes de la Plata from Argentina. The top prize is US$5 million (Dh18m). Fans began arriving at the stadium by bus three hours prior to the match, snacking on fish and chips, Mexican fajitas and Singapore-style noodles as they watched freestyle footballers, beat boxing and break dancing. "We will heat people up before the match, before they go in," said Ahmed G, 17, one of the beat boxers.
An opening ceremony featured 250 performers clad in colourful carnival costumes. As Arabian-themed music played from the speakers, the young people ran to the centre of the pitch while young men in kandouras beat a rhythm on their hands on drums. Then the music lowered and a small boy in white and a girl in red walked out from the players' entrance to greet the crowd in English and Arabic. "Our father the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan al Nahyan, the founder of UAE, told us that the building of mankind is difficult and hard," the young girl said in English. "It represents, however, the real wealth of the country.
"This is not made up of material wealth. It is made up of men, of children and future generations. It is this which constitutes the real treasure." As the crowd applauded, the music kicked in again and performers carried pipes shaped like a dhow with large sails bearing the emblem of the seven teams competing in the event toward the centre of the pitch. The performance had been choreographed by Wanda Rokicki, who worked on events such as the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
The successful staging of this tournament would provide a "turning point" for the country, the UAE FA president, Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi, said on Tuesday. The UAE were successful hosts of the Fifa World Youth Championships in Abu Dhabi in 2003 and of the more recent Beach Soccer World Cup in Dubai, but this tournament could give the country the courage to ask for more, he said. The tournament is now building towards the first match featuring Barcelona, which is expected to play some of the world's best footballers, such as Lionel Messi.
Tomorrow night's matchup pits Tp Mazembe Englebert from the Democratic Republic of Congo against Pohang Steelers from South Korea. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org