ABU DHABI // After months of preparations, the Fifa Club World Cup kicks off in the capital tonight as the UAE Pro League champions, Al Ahli, take on Auckland City, from New Zealand.
Having successfully staged the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which was viewed by a huge international audience last month, the eyes of the world will once more be on Abu Dhabi as the football tournament begins at 8pm at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. The games will be broadcast in 180 countries across six continents. The 11-day, eight-match, seven-team tournament features six continental champions as well as Al Ahli.
At stake for the clubs is a US$5 million (Dh18m) top prize. Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, can reaffirm its reputation as a friendly and efficient site for major Fifa competitions. The 2003 World Youth Championship was successfully staged in the capital, and another well-run tournament could bring it the confidence to bid for more big competitions, said Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi, the president of the UAE Football Association.
Those tuning in to the Al Jazeera Sports channel for tonight's first match should see a near-capacity crowd. Organisers said only a few tickets remained unsold for the match, which also features the tournament's opening ceremony, with 250 performers. Sections of the stands are expected to be filled by expatriate New Zealanders, along with about 20 fans who braved a 19-hour journey from Auckland, via Hong Kong.
Around 5,000 regular Al Ahli supporters will be there. They expect to be augmented by hundreds of fans from other UAE Pro League clubs who have pledged their support to the UAE's representative. The final and semi-finals were already sold out, said Mr al Rumaithi. The slogan of FIFA's marketing campaign for the tournament has been "Make some noise", and it would seem the sound stage is set. "All the stadiums and the sites for the tournament are ready and waiting, particularly the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium," said Mr al Rumaithi.
Although all tickets to the final and semi-finals were gone, he said "a number of tickets" were available to some of the early matches. Abu Dhabi has been readying itself to host Fifa's Club World Cup intended to identify the best club team on the planet since it was awarded the competition in May 2008. Major renovations to the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium and Zayed Sports City have been chief among the improvements, including freshly laid pitches.
The excitement for the event began to build in May when Barcelona defeated Manchester United in the Champions League final, booking their place in the tournament as Europe's best club. Barcelona could win a record-breaking six trophies for the year with a championship in Abu Dhabi and are arriving with a full squad featuring elite players, such as Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Meanwhile, supporters of the clubs have begun arriving in the capital ahead of the matches.
The excitement and nerves were already settling in yesterday for Colin Cook, the secretary of the Auckland City supporters club. He said a victory for Auckland could bring further respect to New Zealand football, which is still basking in the glow of its national team qualifying last month for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa. "We were down at the stadium today and you can feel it - trepidation and anticipation," he said.
"We want to win for the whole area. Oceania is struggling for credibility, but slowly but surely we are getting some. If we were to get a win here I think people would start to take Oceania football seriously." Most of the Auckland fans arrived in Dubai last Friday and have booked their return flights for tomorrow. Should the club defeat Al Ahli, some plan to stay. Nado Yugovich, the head of the supporters club, joked that he would be desperately trying to fly back should they get the chance to meet Barcelona in the semi-finals by defeating Al Ahli and then Atlante of Mexico.
"If we beat the Mexicans I think we'll be flying back for the game against Barcelona. There'll be money being scraped around everywhere for that one." In addition to Auckland, the African club champions TP Mazembe from Congo and Asian champions Pohang Steelers from South Korea have arrived ahead of their match on Friday. Kim Tae-Yung, a spokesman for the Pohang Steelers, said no fans had travelled with the club from Korea but he hoped for support from about 2,000 Korean expatriates living in the capital.
However, more than 2,000 supporters of Estudiantes de la Plata from Argentina are expected to travel with the club when they arrive to prepare for their semi-final next Tuesday, said Diego Raimundo, a spokesman for the club. Elisa Labori, the president of the FC Barcelona Fan Club of the UAE, said she was not sure how many supporters were coming to the capital from Barcelona. She said about 150 people had signed up for a charter flight through the club but others had bought tickets and made their own travel arrangements.
Her club had arranged a bus from Dubai for about 300 people, she said.