ABU DHABI // It was billed as one of the largest football events the country had ever seen – and the big kick-off to the Fifa Under-17 World Cup did not disappoint.
Thousands of fans piled into the 42,056-seat Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Thursday to see the world’s best young footballers show off their skills.
In the build-up to the UAE’s match against Honduras, a rowdy crowd stomped, cheered and clapped as the official opening ceremony marked the start of the three-week international tournament.
Twenty-four giant balloons, representing each of the teams competing in the event, filled the pitch as the flags of each nation were carried proudly by young volunteers.
A firework display then lit up the sky and wowed the crowds before the UAE squad strode on to the pitch, then the crowd stood as the UAE’s national anthem played.
Ahead of the 8pm kick-off, fans voiced their support for the football stars of tomorrow.
“I have come here to support the UAE national team,” said Emirati Salah Saad, 34.
A football fan for more than 15 years, Mr Saad, from Abu Dhabi, said he loved the sport and was happy to see such a big event take centre stage in his home country.
“I have supported the UAE team for many years,” he said. “I am very happy to be here.”
His friend and compatriot, Mishaal Sultan, 37, said: “It is very good to be here. I hope, inshallah, that they [the UAE team] make the final.”
Musibah Al Marri, 31, travelled from Dubai to watch the match.
“It is important to support the UAE team,” said the Emirati.
Football fans welcomed the decision by the organising committee not to charge for tickets to any of the matches.
“I’m very happy it is free,” said Hamed Al Mazmi, 23, an Emirati fan from Abu Dhabi. “I’m very excited to be here.”
Before the UAE and Honduras did battle on the pitch, Brazil and Slovakia went head to head, with the former walking away with a 6-1 victory.
Indian expatriate Loluck Baby, 27, said he was a fan of Brazil and Argentina and had watched every World Cup since 1994.
The Abu Dhabi resident said he had enjoyed watching the opening night’s action with friends and family, and was grateful for the free admission, which had given him the chance to see the games in person.
“It is very generous,” he said, adding that he felt confident Brazil would reach the final. “It is a good opportunity to see the World Cup.”
Friends Sahed Ibrahim, 25, and Fazlu Rahman, 24, Indian expatriates living in Abu Dhabi, were also among the cheering crowds.
“We are very happy to be here,” said Mr Ibrahim. “We have been supporting football since we were six years old.”
For those who could not make it to the stadium, an official Fifa Fan Zone was set up on the public and family beach at the Corniche.
A big screen displayed all the action and gave supporters a front-seat view of the next generation of international football stars in action.
As well as showing the games, the Fan Zone, which will be open until the tournament ends in three weeks, will host football contests.
The competition is taking place at six UAE venues – Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, Emirates Stadium in Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah Stadium, Sharjah Stadium, Rashid Stadium in Dubai and Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain.
It is one of the world’s biggest international tournaments, with 52 matches being played by the 24 national teams battling to reach the final in Abu Dhabi on November 8.
Tourism chiefs were expecting an influx of 60,000 visitors for the 15th edition of the biennial tournament. The U17 World Cup has been the breeding ground for many of the sport’s superstars, including David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Ronaldinho and Neymar, all of whom competed as youngsters before becoming household names.
Organisers said that the tournament had a long and successful history.
“It is one of the oldest of the Fifa World Cups and has been around since 1985,” said Inaki Alvarez, Fifa’s deputy director of competitions.
The competition was one of three major sporting events that took in the UAE on Thursday, with the Fina Swimming World Cup and the Dubai Desert Force mixed martial arts competition also getting underway.