x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A gulf in class is apparent

In a recent tour, our columnist discovered just how much people from the region love the 'Beautiful Game'.

Columnist Andrew Cole was able to share plenty of laughs during his tour of the Gulf region. 'I loved every minute', he says.
Columnist Andrew Cole was able to share plenty of laughs during his tour of the Gulf region. 'I loved every minute', he says.

I have just spent 10 days in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Ten days in which I was entrusted to take the English Premier League trophy around these football-crazy places.

I loved every minute.

When you play football you live in a bubble where everything is planned for you and it's impossible to have more than two or three days off during the season. That was my life from 15 to 38.

You have so much going on that you seldom reflect on what you've achieved because there's always another game a few days away. I have a bit more time to look back now and I'm enjoying it.

When Manchester United asked me to take the trophy on tour I wasn't sure what to expect. I know that United are hugely popular around the world and I know that the team can command huge crowds, even for friendlies. I saw 80,000 watch a friendly game in Washington, DC at the start of the season.

United would love to play friendlies in all the places they have fans but it's impossible, so they send me or one of the other club ambassadors instead.

Me and a big shiny trophy which thousands of people came out to see, to touch, to have their photo taken with and to be reminded of memories of the games United played on the way to winning it.

I was a bit worried that nobody would turn up.

I've been travelling to the region for more than 10 years and know that the Premier League is very popular. I see the Manchester United shirts, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea ones, too.

More recently, I've started to see Manchester City ones. You spot Barcelona and Real Madrid shirts around, but the English ones dominate overall.

And I've turned on the television to see football on so many channels, so I get the picture. But it only really hits home when you meet people face to face and you realise the depth of their knowledge.

I had people in Bahrain describing goals which I'd scored and long forgotten about.

Others in Saudi who knew more about me than my family.

One of most important people in Kuwait is a big United fan and regularly flies to England to watch the team. He takes a plane to London and then gets a train to Manchester, where nobody knows who he is.

I had a great time and it was good to see my old teammate Lee Sharpe, who now lives in Dubai, where he is a television commentator.

We spoke about the number of foreign footballers in the region. I was sounded out about playing in Qatar towards the end of my career and it didn't really appeal because so few players made the move. I thought that players only came for the money and those that did were bad mouthed by other professionals because the league was not respected.

That's changed.

Of course the money is good and while the leagues are not equivalent to the main European ones, I'd fancy a year or two in the region if I was still playing.

I'd like to coach too – I learnt a lot in my years as a footballer and would like to pass some of that on.

I'm told that football levels are really improving and attendances growing.

Serious football people like Diego Maradona and Quique Sanchez Flores are in the UAE, my old Blackburn teammate Lucas Neil, Asamoah Gyan, Walter Zenga and Fabio Cannavaro.

I can see that money attracts a lot of football people, but the lifestyle and weather is enviable.

There are a lot of European football people who have coached in the UAE.

That bodes well for the grass roots level and the future of the domestic league which shouldn't depend on big name imports, but for now the focus is on the English Premier League. Everyone was talking about how Manchester United and City did last weekend; people are really passionate about it.

I'd like to come back with the Premier League trophy next year, again with red and white ribbons on it. Manchester City are the favourites to stop that happening, but I'm going to stick my neck out and say that United will retain the trophy.

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent, Andy Mitten.


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