x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Something in the Garden City air

Chuck Culpepper feels the excitement during Al Ain's home game against Al Jazira last night.

Bare, the Al Jazira striker, battles for the ball against Al Ain.
Bare, the Al Jazira striker, battles for the ball against Al Ain.

You could feel it in the parking lots. The parking lots outside Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium teemed with such overflow that some people told of arriving four hours before kick-off, finding no space and improvising to other lots.

Spaces had become so elusive that a vehicle could make two tours of the lot and find space only when three guys got out to move aside some scrap wood.

You could feel it on the outside. Even the Al Ain fans who weren't in the stadium last night before the Pro League-clinching match with Al Jazira managed to resonate the weight of the evening. Some sat outside on the lawn in front of the stadium watching a large video screen an hour before kick-off. Some jockeyed for position to enter the gates some two and one-half hours before kick-off.

Even from the outside you could see the ring of people standing in the top rows, just standing and talking and standing, just waiting for the kick-off. Some people, a club official said, had arrived six hours before kick off.

You could feel it in the air, even straight up in the air. As kick-off neared, straight up in the black sky, a helicopter hovered and then descended just behind the stadium, lowering into the momentousness. Al Ain officials said it carried Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the grandson of the president.

As it came down, it sent around some dust that wafted into a corner of the stadium, another little detail that told big things about the big night.

You could feel it all over the place even before the players and the referees started stretching, that feeling you get every once in a while in sport, the feeling of some extra layers of magnitude. The club with the most league titles had a chance to add a 10th to the cases, and it had waited eight years for this 10th. In some ways, just being around the place, you could feel a bit the eight years.

Scan the planet on a Friday night in late April, and you might not find any city or town any more revved up and galvanised than Al Ain. The Friday night lights had come on, and the fans had come out, even to the newly opened merchandise store, which reportedly got a fine first run as devotees bought their purple.

So finally, of course, you could feel it in the stadium.

You could feel it from the players, from their sense of purpose at claiming what had become available with such a considerable lead in the table with such a chunk of the season to go.

The determined way they went about their business, the way they applauded each other for passes and through balls whether those wound up completed or not, just the look of them ... all of it lent a feeling.

You could feel it in the colours, the purple balloons; in the children, who looked as if they knew they had found a big night; in the smartphones, held aloft for a visual effect upon a sturdy-looking 2-0 lead at 24 minutes; and probably even in the half-time acknowledgement of the UAE's jiu-jitsu champions, replete with a jiu-jitsu display that added to the verve.

And of course, you could feel it in your ears, the urgency of a title just about claimed, in the impressive volume of the mass throats from a stand that, for a facility not particularly steep, holds its clamour well, acoustically. Through the early minutes they clearly sensed the title, and they let that sense drape right over the match, amassing full roar and bounce upon Yasser Al Qahtani's nifty chip for a goal in the eighth minute.

By the time Asamoah Gyan had created an artful ruckus on the left 12 minutes later, and by the time his blast had ricocheted off goalkeeper Ali Khaseif, then ricocheted off Al Qahtani and into the goal, you could feel their urgency start to give way to a gathering certainty.

Finally, you could feel it through the perfunctory second half, in the way the fans cheered players as they came off for substitutions, in the way they held their purple scarves in the closing minutes as the title drew nigh and in the last crescendo that went up at full time.

That cemented what you could have felt all along, probably from six hours before kick-off had you managed to beat those devoted sorts to the stadium: a sense of bigness, the bigness of a Friday night in Al Ain.


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