UAE football supporters will be thin in the stands at the London Olympics, the president of the Football Association concedes, because the celebration of Ramadan coincides with the Summer Games for the first time in 32 years.
"There will be few supporters, definitely," Yousuf Al Serkal said yesterday from an Asian Football Confederation meeting in Kuala Lumpur. "Ramadan is a Holy Month and people like to remain at home in our country to be with our families. So this is true: there will be fewer supporters."
He said he could not estimate the number of Emiratis who will attend the UAE group matches, against Uruguay on July 26, Great Britain on July 29 and Senegal on August 1, but he hopes that Arabs living in the UK will turn out.
“The other Arab nationalities, we count on their support,” Al Serkal said.
Mr A Majid Al Mulla, Divisional Vice President for dnata travel, said some individual tickets remain available for the high-profile match between the UAE and Great Britain at Wembley.
He noted that the tickets cost Dh2,950 and put the purchaser in “20-seater hospitality boxes” at the London stadium.
In any of the past seven Olympiads, the appearance of the UAE national team in the Summer Games might have seen hundreds or even thousands of Emiratis travelling to watch them play. But Ramadan did not overlap any of those Olympics.
Souhaib Mishmish, an Emirati match agent who has organised the UAE's camp in Austria and counts himself one of the Olympic team's most ardent fans, said he will be home in Dubai when the UAE play Uruguay at Old Trafford in Manchester next week.
"This is an important family time for Emiratis," said the father of three. "If it were not Ramadan, I would go to see them play, of course. If they get to the second round, I will try to see them. But otherwise, no."
Adel Ali Al Fahim, a regional communications manager for Borouge, the UAE-based plastics company which gave the FA more than Dh1 million to be the official sponsor of the Olympic team training camps, noted the irony of Ramadan coinciding with Games.
"It is very important that the UAE have qualified for the Olympics, but especially in London," he said.
"London is like our second home. It's not like Asia or North America. All UAE people feel London is our second home. So when we qualified, it wasn't just for the Olympics, it was for London!"
Omar Al Raisi, an Emirati football writer and contributor to The National, said he is hard-pressed to identify an Emirati who will go to England to watch the Olympic football team.
"I have spoken to every Emirati I know and some random Emirati fans, but none of them are going to attend the Olympics, but they are very, very excited to watch the team play on TV," he said.
He said some fans feel no urgency to see the team in person, and others are put off by the expense, but the key factor is Ramadan. "People want to spend it with their families; it is a time to pray for forgiveness and be spiritual. … After work we go home and have a nap, pray and have amazing homemade iftar food with the whole family," he said.
"It's also a month of togetherness with the whole family. Guests come over, cousins you've never seen the whole year come over for iftar, and, of course, friends. And in the evening we have Arabic coffee, Emirati sweets and special desserts.
"So, it is very difficult to leave all this and be living in a London hotel, where it is raining almost every other day, get through those huge number of people visiting London for the Olympics, the Tube, buses, et cetera.
"Me, personally, I am a huge football fan and passionate about the game, so I would have loved to visit London and watch our heroes play live in [famous] stadiums like Wembley and Old Trafford. After all, they have made history by qualifying for the first time in the Olympics."
The most recent Summer Olympics to coincide with Ramadan were the 1980 Games at Moscow, which began on July 19 and ended on August 3. Ramadan in that year began on July 13 and ended on August 11.
The UAE's matches in the London Games will at least make for prime TV viewing back home. The group games will kick off at 8pm, 10.45pm and 10.45pm.