DUBAI // Football's power brokers have kicked off a campaign to get fans flocking to Pro League games. They need to more than double the average gates in the UAE or risk losing Asian Champions League places. And a major thrust of the supporter strategy will be to attract more expatriate football fans to matches. The average attendance for games last season, the first year of professional football in the country, was 2,120, which just met the Asian Football Confederation's minimum requirement of 2,000 to take part in the AFC Champions League.
The AFC have decided to increase this figure to 5,000 for the 2011 Champions League and football officials in the country are gearing up to meet the new benchmark. In a bid to reach the expatriate community, the UAE Football League (UFL) plan at least one televised game every week with English commentary, while clubs like Al Nasr are also drawing up their own schemes to attract them. Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi, the president of the UAE Football Association, said: "The expatriates are a part of our country and society, and they should be involved. But how can that be done? We should get to them. We should go to them and explain to them, give them our programmes so they can help.
"I think they [the clubs] should go out to the schools and communities, and speak to them. They should also speak to the non- Arabic media. "This is something that will help us in getting our message through, getting people to know that there are things happening, that there is football being played here." December's Fifa Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi should also be able to get the expatriates involved in UAE football, with Pro League champions Al Ahli competing alongside the six continental champion clubs, including Spanish giants Barcelona.
Football fans in the country, across nationalities, will be queuing up to get a glimpse of superstars like Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Xavi. "I hope their interest is not just for that tournament," said al Rumaithi. "I hope we can sustain that interest." While many of the expatriate fans will be supporting the likes of Barca and Argentine team Estudiantes, Al Rumaithi is keen to make sure local champions Ahli will not lack support. "We have thought of ways to help Ahli get more crowds through our efforts at the Club World Cup," he said.
"Ahli will be representing the country and all the clubs should come out to help them. So from our side, we should assist them in getting more and more crowds." Better crowds for the AFC Champions League matches is also a priority for al Rumaithi as the disappointing turnouts last season reflected poorly on UAE football. The country's representation in the tournament could be reduced if the problem persists.
"Luckily enough, we did not lose our seats in the AFC Champions League for next season," said al Rumaithi. "They [the AFC] had a point against us regarding the crowd. So we will try to sit with the clubs and see how we can help them fill the stadiums during the Champions League matches. That really reflects poorly on the image of the country. I don't want to lose a seat next year because of a lack of spectators.
"Taking into consideration that 99 per cent of our stadiums have a capacity of 12,000-14,000, I believe that could be filled easily." email@example.com