In a stadium so vacant you actually could hear yourself think, a sole voice came cascading all the way across the pitch last night just before kick-off. "An-go-la!" it exclaimed.
Pretty soon it had accompaniment, for the bulk of the noise during an international friendly came from the small pocket of Angolans who had gathered across two sections, just across an opening from the UAE fans. On an informal count, those UAE fans seemed to number about 200, the Angolans maybe 90.
"Most of the Angolans who live in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, we are all here," said Yolanda Carvalho of the Angolan embassy. Alongside business travelers in from Luanda, the Angolan capital, and a cluster of employees of the Angolan airline TAAG, and at least one tourist who had traveled from Angola and found her countrymen here playing football, they forged the place to be on a tranquil night in Zayed Sports City.
They chanted. They laughed. They waved small Angolan flags on little sticks and carried two giant Angolan flags. At one point late in the first half, Carvalho rose from her seat, proceeded to the front of the section and encouraged the section to sing something. The fans burst into laughter and then into "Ole! Ole-Ole-Ole!" They bellowed, "Angola", and, "Palancas", the latter their team nickname stemming from the rare Giant Sable Antelope. "Only in Angola can we find that [animal]," said Edna Guedes, an Abu Dhabi resident and embassy official seated next to Carvalho, "and that's why it's our mascot."
The sides, sitting 5,800 kilometers and one seven-hour flight apart, have never played each other before. In fact, Angolan expatriates in the UAE number so few that it's possible to walk into one stadium section and meet one quite noteworthy. "I was the first Angolan to live here," said Jose Manuel Tchakombe, who relocated in 1996. Really? "Really. I was the first to live here." He runs Reino Trading LLC, an exporting company specialising in computers and computer parts. He had brought along his son, Barnabas Haddis Tchakombe, 17, with an Angolan flag on his cheek and a plan to study medicine in London in his plans, and Barnabas' uncle, Zellalem Haddis, in from Addis Ababa. They had rented a van that rolled in from Dubai and carried 11 fans, or 12 if counting the driver. "We've all come from Dubai, driven 45 minutes to get here and now we're enjoying it," he said at half time, citing the first-half Angolan goal that came gorgeously on Wilson Macano's cross to Maeco Antonio for one of the more perfunctory headers you'll see.
As for the emptiness surrounding their enjoyment, Mr Haddis called it "very sad, really sad". The elder Tchakombe said: "Today is not the right day. It should be on Saturday, I think. Then people would know on Friday that nobody was going to work on Saturday." His father continued: "Also, football is not cultural for these people [Emiratis]," as is, for example, horse racing, he said. Is football cultural for the people of Angola? Oh, you had better believe. "The stadium would be full," Jose Manuel Tchakombe said.
On a Tuesday night in Abu Dhabi, though, the smattering of expats and visitors from a far-flung country made the best noise they could as their warmth - not to mention their invitation to the Angolan Independence Day celebration on 11 November - made them excellent company. In the 65th minute, they chanted, "Af-ri-ca! Af-ri-ca!" For Angola's closing goal and for the closing whistle, they made a worthy little din that rang through the place.
Said Alberto, wearing his I HEART ANGOLA shirt and leading cheers from behind his flag, "The stadium is beautiful," an assessment possibly aided by the fact he could see almost all of it. firstname.lastname@example.org