x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Our chance to support a worthwhile endeavour

The country's national teams know what it is like to be inside a stadium with tens of thousands of supporters. They just don't know what it is like to hear them cheering for the UAE.

Ahmed Khalil  and the UAE faced Iraq infront of empty stands in Al Ain in November last year.
Ahmed Khalil and the UAE faced Iraq infront of empty stands in Al Ain in November last year.

The UAE Olympic football team last year played a game watched by 47,000 people in Pyongyang. The national team was seen by 70,000 spectators in Riyadh in 2009 and by 50,000 people in Tehran in 2008.

The country's national teams know what it is like to be inside a stadium with tens of thousands of supporters. They just don't know what it is like to hear them cheering for the UAE.

Fans of the country's Olympic team, who are two games away from securing a berth in the London 2012 Games, can do something to change that when the Emirati youngsters play Australia at the 45,000-capacity Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

UAE fans could consider it an opportunity. A challenge. A test.

A place in the London Olympics would rank as the second-greatest achievement in the country's football history, behind only the 1990 World Cup berth.

And it seems fair to assume that they are more likely to win the first of these two final qualifiers if the big stadium is crowded with UAE fans.

But that will require them to abandon their television sets and go to the match, something UAE fans have not shown themselves willing to do in recent history.

Going back four years to the senior team's bid for the 2010 World Cup, the largest crowd to see a national team play in the UAE was the 15,000 who watched a game against Saudi Arabia in 2008.

Attendances for the Olympic team's two home games played so far this round were 4,110 and 6,432.

The Football Association is doing what it can to get UAE fans to the game and, interestingly, so are individuals.

Kefah Al Kaabi, who hosts a daily programme on the Noor Dubai radio station, is all but demanding that fans turn out.

"It is not good to stay at home and ask those players to win," he said yesterday. "We need to be at Mohammed bin Zayed and be with them and show them that they are not by themselves.

"The timing is not good, Wednesday at 5.30, but I tell my listeners that when you love your team you have no problem with the time, because if they are not there, they will not win."

A woman who is an Al Ain supporter and prefers to be known only as "Maitha" is leading a Twitter campaign in an attempt to get spectators to the match, calling on UAE fans to be their side's "12th man" against Australia.

"Our target is to mobilise the biggest number of football fans around the national team to improve our chances for the London Games," she told the FA website. "It's a dream that we need to make true."

The FA announced yesterday that no admission will be charged for UAE supporters, and two gates are being set aside for families. Also, the Abu Dhabi Educational Zone has said that 5,000 students will attend the match, and a fan named Mohammed Al Amiri has supplied 4,500 UAE flags to be distributed at the stadium.

Last week, Ahmed Darwish, a board member of the Emirates club, told the FA that 5,000 fans will make the 240-kilometre trek from Ras Al Khaimah to see the game.

"We hope all clubs will follow the footsteps of the Emirates club," he said.

More than a little hope exists that the UAE could produce a big crowd.

The Olympic team have been closely watched and treasured for at least four years, going back to when they won the Under 17 Gulf Cup in 2008.

"All our discomfort with the national team becomes happiness with the Olympic team," Al Kaabi said.

The young players were staggered in September when Theyab Awana, a fine midfielder, died in a car crash.

Al Kaabi has been telling his listeners that Awana's dream was to go to the Olympics, "and in the spirit of his name, we call on the people to join the players to make this happen".

He added: "We ask them to do so much and we give them so little. The minimum thing we can do is be with them so that they can hear us and know we will back them to the end. This could be history."

It certainly will be, if a big crowd at a big match is shouting their support for the UAE.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae