x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

More nights in the Pro League like these, please

It is ironic that Al Wasl v Al Jazira should be played out in a pulsating atmosphere when Phil Anderton stepped down as chief executive at Jazira.

Al Wasl fans set off smoke bombs and throw rolls of paper on the pitch before the start of Wednesday night’s game.
Al Wasl fans set off smoke bombs and throw rolls of paper on the pitch before the start of Wednesday night’s game.

The car parks at Pro League football grounds have always seemed to be gloriously over-ambitious.

Useful, of course. There is rarely the need to tramp too far to get to the game when there are hundreds of empty parking bays right on the doorstep.

It usually means there is a funereal atmosphere inside the ground, mind. But at least you do not have to walk far to see the action.

There needs to be some sort of inquiry. At Wednesday night's meeting between Al Wasl and Al Jazira, two sides with serious title aspirations, all the parking spaces were taken. The majority of seats at Zabeel Stadium were filled, too. It was a heady night for the Pro League.

Dubai drivers never need a second invitation to go off-road, but Wasl's supporters had to do so out of necessity before this game.

With the Oud Metha Road bottle-necked outside the ground, many chose the direct route across the sand to find somewhere to park.

For many, the best they could manage was a makeshift space on a piece of wasteland. And this was with more than an hour still to go until the scheduled kick-off.

UAE football has rarely known enthusiasm such as this for a run-of-the-mill league game like this.

It is ironic that this fixture should be played out in such a pulsating atmosphere in the week in which it was revealed Phil Anderton had surprisingly stepped down as the chief executive of Jazira.

When Wasl made the corresponding away trip to Jazira last season, the match set a new attendance record for a fixture in this league, and by a significant margin, too.

Back then, it was almost exclusively down to a set of initiatives put in place by the man who had been empowered to raise the profile of the soon-to-be champion club from Abu Dhabi.

The Scotsman had deciphered that for professionalism to work in the UAE, and thus for people to be attracted to watch matches in person, the live experience had to better that of sitting at home at watching on TV.

Wednesday night's game carried with it a few of the requisite gimmicks, too. There were pre-match pyrotechnics, for a start. "Fireworks Phil", as Anderton is known in his native Scotland, would have approved.

Wasl, of course, now benefit from having the ultimate celebrity manager. And, talking of approval, there is little doubt Diego Maradona will have been impressed by Wednesday night's display of fanaticism in the stands.

The Argentine great is famously averse to the quiet life. He thrives on chaos, and, in all likelihood, he has probably felt the relatively sedate atmosphere of UAE football a little unnerving in his brief experience so far.

This will have been right up his street. The self-proclaimed Wasl "Ultras", the supporters who have tried so hard to accommodate Maradona since his arrival in the summer, displayed banners welcoming their opponents "to Hell".

With such landmarks as Emirates Towers and Wafi Pyramids providing the backdrop to Zabeel Stadium, this must have been a very localised version of Hell.

As the home faithful attempted to create a mini-Bombanera in Dubai, kick-off was delayed for five minutes as groundstaff tried to clear the field of ticker-tape.

Bare, the Jazira attacker, tried to assist, but thought better of it when his boots got clogged in the detritus and as more streamers were aimed in his direction from the home supporters. Jazira's travelling support played their part, too. The champions have become inextricably linked to Manchester City since Sheikh Mansour assumed control of the English Premier League club.

Having a shared owner is not their only common bond. When the two sides took the field on Wednesday night, one of the away fans waved a placard reading: "Why always Jazrawi?" (Jazira fans.)

Clearly, it was a play on the motif on Mario Balotelli's undershirt when he celebrated scoring for City in the Manchester derby recently.

Then when Matias Delgado, Jazira's playmaker scored the opener, the travelling fans indulged in "The Poznan" - the bouncing dance which technically emanates from Poland, but which has been made famous by City's supporters.

It is debatable how deep Anderton's ideals have permeated the Pro League. Perhaps this atmosphere was a one-off, prompted by a clash of two talented teams, with the teaser of getting a glimpse of the great Maradona.

One thing is for sure, though, professional football in the UAE could do with more nights like this.

pradley@thenational.ae


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