x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

Football fans' attention turns to Abu Dhabi with Fifa Club World Cup to kick off

'An extraordinary celebration of professional football, international talent and best-in-class skill'

Real Madrid celebrate as captain Sergio ramos lifts the trophy after the Fifa Club World Cup final between Real Madrid and Kashima Antlers at International Stadium Yokohama on December 18, 2016 in Yokohama, Japan.  Etsuo Hara/Getty Images
Real Madrid celebrate as captain Sergio ramos lifts the trophy after the Fifa Club World Cup final between Real Madrid and Kashima Antlers at International Stadium Yokohama on December 18, 2016 in Yokohama, Japan. Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

All eyes will be on Abu Dhabi as the 14th edition of the Fifa Club World Cup, an annual event pitting the respective champions from various continents against each other, kicks off in the emirate on Wednesday evening, with the Spanish giants Real Madrid looking to defend the crown.

While Abu Dhabi has hosted the event before - back in 2009 and 2010 - the appetite of the nation’s residents in regards to quality sporting events has only grown. And, concurrently, Abu Dhabi continues to respond bringing in top-notch events establishing the city as a Tier 1 sporting destination within the region and globally.

"We are honoured that the UAE once again is hosting this world-renowned tournament," said Major-General Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi, the head of Abu Dhabi's Higher Local Organising Committee (LOC) for the event, during his welcoming speech in October.

"This tournament will be an extraordinary celebration of professional football, international talent and best-in-class skill, showcasing the great facilities, hospitality and unique culture our nation offers as a world-class sporting destination.”

The money involved is pretty impressive, too. In 2016, Fifa dedicated $20.7m to hosting of the Fifa Club World Cup Japan that year. The total revenue generated across the past two years stands at $49.4m with the 2016 edition beating Fifa forecasts by $8m.

The total revenue forecast by Fifa for 2017 is $21m, although officials in UAE are expecting to do better given the accessibility of the city to the world and the introduction of new sponsors. But it is not just the governing body and the local economy that is set to reap rewards.

Houriya Al Taheri, the head coach and technical director with the UAE Women’s National Team - and the first Arab woman to receive a professional football coaching licence - is delighted about the benefits the women's football is anticipated to garner from the Club World Cup.

"During the previous editions of the event in the UAE, we were merely spectators, however, this time around, most of us are involved with the LOC project in one form or the other," she tells The National.

"Moreover, I believe the event has also helped raise the profile of women's football across the nation and will continue to do so given the global appeal of the Club World Cup,” says Ms Al Taheri.

An example of such promotion is the participation of UAE Women’s National Team members in several official Fifa countdown to the Club World Cup videos, with some seen alongside players from the UAE’s flagship representative in the tournament – Al Jazira FC.

In hosting the past editions in 2009 and 2010, the UAE struggled to bring in the crowds in comparison to other host nations such as Morocco, in 2014, and Japan last year. On an average, Japan and Morocco had match attendance levels of 30,707 and 31,584 fans, respectively, whereas the event in UAE brought in 22,287 fans per match on average over the two events, with the lowest average level being 19,543 in 2009.

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However, the situation is different this time around as the tournament has seen many roadshows being held across the seven emirates and across the world. These roadshows and promotions, Maj-Gen Al Romaithi says, will help avoid the "setbacks" of the previous tournaments hosted in the capital.

"The big crowd back then was only for semi-finals and finals," he says. "This year, we are hoping to fill the stadium from the first match itself. It is a challenge but promotional events should help spread the word.”

It was only last month when Fifa concluded a deal with a subsidiary (Alibaba Cloud) of the Chinese juggernaut Alibaba Group as the Presenting Partner of the event until 2023.

While Chinese firms have identified the potential commercial benefit the sport brings with it across the world, Alibaba’s Cloud computing arm is ramping up its offerings with an emphasis on making the fan experience much more enjoyable.

“Alibaba Cloud is committed to making technology more inclusive to benefit more people’s day-to-day life and well-being," Simon Hu, the senior vice president of Alibaba Group, and president of Alibaba Cloud, said last month in announcing the deal. "Sports is a big part of modern life and football is one of the most popular sports in the world.

"By becoming a major partner of the Fifa Club World Cup, we hope to show how our technology can help such an exciting global tournament to evolve as a spectator phenomenon in the digital era, reaching a wider range of football fans and offering them a better viewing experience."

Alibaba Cloud is behind the MVP (Most Valuable Professional) award "for opinion leaders devoted to helping others fully understand and use Alibaba Cloud technologies" and the firm is collaborating with the Fifa Club World Cup to engage with a broader audience globally.

An example of how Alibaba's Cloud service could come into play is that of data generated by players on the field being turned into insights - in real time eventually - assisting managers and players gather deeper knowledge on their own performance and that of the opponents instantaneously. Coaches could also make tactical decisions based on the strengths and weaknesses of the competing teams, as well as taking into consideration the actionable advice generated by the firm’s AI programme.

In the foreseeable future, real-time monitoring of games could help referees make use of technology-aided decision-making and ultimately increase the accuracy of crucial judgments. For example, deep learning technology could be applied to determine the normal set of parameters surrounding a football game and alert the organisers when there is unusual, and possibly match-fixing behaviour, helping ultimately to ensure a clean and fair sport.

“For the worldwide audience, cloud computing could bring the games to multiple screens from TV with video on-demand to the small screens of your mobile devices and at the same time enrich the viewing experience and level of interaction,” Mr Hu tells The National.

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And the focus of fans' experience extends towards those who might not have access to the games aligning with the firm’s double H (Happiness and Health) strategy. For Alibaba Cloud, this lies at the heart of innovative technology.

“We could also imagine how our technology would be applied to bring some new aspects of fun and enjoyment to the lives of those people who might have had barriers to access or participation before. For example by allowing disabled football fans in China to watch the games with subtitles powered by our speech recognition technology,” says Mr Hu.

Excitement among the UAE's resident football fans to see the top teams in action is illustrated by the LOC in partnership with volunteers.ae, the country's biggest volunteer programme, which recently announced close to 7,300 applications for 1,000 slots for the 10-day event.

Ahmed Al Qubaisi, the director of marketing and communications, was delighted with the response for participation in what for most will be an experience of a lifetime.

"We are pleased to have had such an extremely positive response from volunteers keen to support the biggest football tournament in the region this year," he said last month.

"This tournament would be impossible to stage without their expertise and the LOC are looking forward to delivering a successful tournament broadcast across the world and that each and every volunteer will learn so much from."

Similarly, expectations are also high for Alibaba as the event provides a platform for the group to showcase its potential within the cloud computing space. As the exploitation of data grows across the spectrum, so is the need for technology that can carry its weight.

“We look forward to leveraging our powerful cloud computing infrastructure to help the world leading game organisers such as Fifa to enjoy the benefits of cloud, enhancing its service capabilities in a digital age and lower down IT cost,” says Mr Hu.

The goal for Alibaba Cloud, as sponsors of the Fifa Club World Cup, is clear.

“By partnering with Fifa, our goal is to make technology more inclusive to benefit the various stakeholders in sports including sports fans, athletes, organisers, and help the industry transform digitally. For Alibaba Cloud, this is the true meaning of inclusive technology,” says Mr Hu.

Last year's Arabian Gulf League winners (Al Jazira) will kick off the festivities on Wednesday night against New Zealand's Auckland City, who have secured a record ninth appearance at the tournament, at 9pm at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain.

Abu Dhabi's Zayed Sports City Stadium, meanwhile, hosts its first match this Saturday and is also the venue for Real Madrid's first game next week. The stadium will feature the deciding final match on Saturday, December 16.