x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Allegiances switch after shift in balance of footballing power

Some local fickle fans are reexamining their loyalties with German clubs overshadowing Real and Barca in the Champions League.

If ever you needed proof of the growing power and influence of the Middle East in the world of international football, just cast an eye around the European football scene as it enters the final phase of the season.

Paris Saint Germain (owned by Qatar, sponsored by Emirates Airline of Dubai) just won the French championship, the club's first win for 19 years and the first fruits of the massive injection of capital from the Gulf.

In Spain, Barcelona (sponsored by the Qatar Foundation) won that country's top prize by seeing off fierce rivals Real Madrid.

In Britain, Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City were involved in a thrilling game in the FA Cup Final at Wembley, only to lose to a last- minute goal.

Such a surprising result must have been hard for everyone at City to take, but as I'm sure Roberto Mancini, the now-departed City manager, will agree it's not about the result, but about the taking part.

This coming weekend it's the final day of the English Premier League, and my team Tottenham Hotspur are in a dog-fight to the finish with deadly rivals Arsenal for the last remaining slot to qualify for the European Champions League next season.

Tottenham, as far as I'm aware, do not have any Gulf links, apart from the loyal band of residents (of which I'm a member) who gather at the best sports bar in Dubai, the Arabian Court bar at the Royal Mirage hotel, to cheer the team on every week.

Arsenal, of course, have long-standing sponsorship and financial arrangements with Emirates Airline. It will be nerve-racking on Sunday.

The Mirage's fame as a sports-watching venue is spreading, but what has surprised me is the number of Emiratis who regularly attend. Most tend to be fans of Manchester United, City or Arsenal, but the Tottenham fans have struck up some good friendships with locals, bound together by the bonds of footballing brotherhood.

One chap in particular, known to me just as "Ali", is a United fan and a regular habitué of the Mirage. He always has a shrewd view of the game, and of the fans.

He told me last weekend of a new "problem" local football fans are encountering. Many have been following Spanish football, cheering on either Barcelona or Real, for years the glamour clubs of European football.

The problem now is that, with the exit of both Spanish giants to the new forces in continental football, many are wondering whether to switch allegiances for the new season, with Bayern Munich of Germany apparently the favoured option.

"They called themselves diehards for Real or Barca in the good days, but now they're changing their minds. Not like me," said Ali, pulling down the front of his dishdasha to reveal a red United shirt underneath. Good man.

But if you ever do fancy a change, Ali, you're more than welcome to join the Tottenham contingent in the Mirage.

***

I had dinner en famille at Burj Al Arab last Thursday. My little girl is always asking to go there whenever we drive past it, and May 9 is a special day in the Kane household, being the annual celebration of Victory Day in Russia and other former Soviet countries, marking the defeat of the Nazis in Europe.

My Azerbaijan-born wife always celebrated it as a child, and despite the end of the Soviet era the date remains a red-letter day for many Russians, who anyway never miss an opportunity to celebrate.

The Al Iwan buffet restaurant was playing Russian wartime music softly in the background as we ate, which was a nice touch, even if none of the staff members I asked had any idea why.

 

fkane@thenational.ae