x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

A rainbow of nations at the Club World Cup

Supporters from across the globe have united with local fans to turn the capital into a sea of colour as the Club World Cup draws to a close in Abu Dhabi.

SC Internacional fans make noise during their match against TP Mazembe.
SC Internacional fans make noise during their match against TP Mazembe.

Some Brazilians have turned up wearing variations of keffiyehs they say they bought for Dh80 at the Marina Mall in Abu Dhabi out of exuberant respect for the setting.

Some men in the Congolese section started playing irresistible brass music inside the stadium, and within moments a large cluster of men in khandouras had gravitated toward them, spending the rest of the match standing nearby and dancing in unique spectacle.

Emiratis posed for unlikely photographs with tourists from far, far away, and at one point an informal procession of Italians posed outside the stadium with their renowned oil-tycoon club owner. One local man noticed the slight hubbub, watched for a while, smiled often, chatted with fans and then asked a bystander about the tycoon: "Who is he?"

The little smorgasbord of the planet merging in the UAE these past 11 days has boasted its bevy of Brazilians and its influx of Italians.

It has brought in Congolese who travelled over Uganda and Kenya and Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, and Koreans who flew all the way across China.

It has added in splashes of Mexicans who came 14,282km from Pachuca and Papua New Guineans, the rare and welcome sight who had done the 10,737km and multiple layovers from Port Moresby.

Then, each night, as if this Club World Cup gathering had insufficient hues, in toward the two stadiums would flow a torrent of guest workers, holding tickets aloft for inspection, in some cases jubilant with fresh distraction.

In droves for as far as the eye could see on Wednesday night at Zayed Sports City, they lined a walkway toward the stadium, heard instructions blared from megaphones and rushed toward seats. "We are labourers," one said earnestly outside Zayed Sports City, with five labourers noting that the tickets had been free.

Thereby did these human beings from football non-hotspots such as Pakistan, India and Bangladesh shore up the crowd numbers in a historically newfangled event, boost the noise and bolster the premise you could spot if you looked carefully: this has been the kind of vivid earthly quilt only sport can summon.

Then, like all things football, it has roped in people beyond the countries involved.

For instance, just before TP Mazembe of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo played the Brazilian club Internacional on Tuesday night, Guy Christian, a Dubai resident, stood outside with a cluster of Mazembe fans, many of whom stayed in Dubai hotels and were bussed over.

He said two Congolese were staying with him after making their three-hour flight from Lubumbashi to Nairobi and their five-hour flight from Nairobi to Dubai.

A small distinction, though: Christian is Cameroonian.

"But from today to the final I have to be here," he said. "I must be here. For me, Africa is playing. Mazembe represent all of Africa. Because Mazembe are the champions of Africa for the year. Africa is playing. This is my opinion."

International glamour has mixed in courtesy of Inter Milan, those European titans.

Dario Scioscia and Fedele Marra, Inter fans in from Montreux, Switzerland - Geneva to London to Dubai - said they had roamed Dubai and ascended Burj Khalifa noticing "a lot of Brazilians", Scioscia said. "But the difference in the Brazilian fans is they are only from Brazil. Inter has fans in many countries."

Example: walking along in their shirts, Scioscia and Marra had received serial recognition, including from a Kenyan man who exulted, "Inter Milan!"

Yet by Luiz Bodanese's reckoning, the seventh Club World Cup, and the second consecutive in Abu Dhabi, has posted the largest, longest migration of any single tribe of fans in the entire, teeming, century-plus history of club football. That would be the extraordinary devotion inbound from Porto Alegre, the 10th-most-populous city in a huge, huge nation and an anchor of the southern part where Brazil starts thinking about becoming Uruguay.

The 12,777km to Abu Dhabi clearly did not daunt the fans of Internacional, among whom Mr Bodanese counts as one, even if he did have to travel only a paltry 11,774km from Rio de Janeiro.

"You know the statistics, don't you?" the sports marketer said outside Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium before the semi-final against Mazembe on Tuesday night.

"This is one of the biggest moves in the world, from a crowd perspective. People say there are going to be 7,000. I think there's going to be more like 10,000. You're going to see people singing all the match, but when the players go on to the field, for each player there is a song."

The fan-player relationship at Internacional, he said "is more than passion, because what you see is a relationship of trust".

When Pablo Guinazu, the Argentine midfielder, thought to leave the club at one point, Bodanese said, fans chanted the Portuguese words for "stay" for long enough that he did. Stay.

As Bodanese spoke, buses behind him emptied ebullient fans dressed in red, fans who clearly had jazzed up the tedium of the ride for some of the locals who had joined them.

The Internacional fans stepped off singing, and four of them suddenly locked arms and began hopping up and down while rotating as a group.

Some carried banners. Some came enveloped in Brazil's singular green-blue-and-yellow flag. Even a few local men in khandouras donned Internacional or Brazilian flags.

The three Brazilians in newly purchased keffiyehs, who identified themselves as Tiago, Sergio and Emerson, had explored.

Staying in Khalidiya after a 28-hour journey - Porto Alegre, 90 minutes to Sao Paulo, six hours in Sao Paulo airport, 12 hours to Frankfurt, an hour in the Frankfurt airport, seven hours to Abu Dhabi - they had walked around the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, taken a safari into the desert, ridden in a four-wheel drive on the sand, witnessed camels and eaten kebabs out there somewhere.

Eduardo Kasper, an Internacional fan who came only from Milan (the slacker) where he works in the consulate, said of Abu Dhabi: "Amazing. We have never seen a place like this one in our lives." He said the Sheikh Zayed Mosque had been "unbelievable", that the people had been "great" and the prices had been "right".

Marco Piacotte from Milan and Esposito Gennaro from Naples, Inter Milan fans, arrived hurriedly on Wednesday morning, stayed in Dubai and had carefully crafted plans, Piacotte said: "In the day, walk on the beach. In the night, to the disco."

The Club World Cup, he said, afforded a chance "to visit this country", a holiday well beyond football, a sentiment echoed by several Inter Milan fans whose most-coveted title came to them last May.

"For us," said Scioscia, "the maximum is the Champions League. If I have to compare this cup, for us it's like" - and he rummaged around his thoughts before saying - "the Confederations Cup for us."

The Club World Cup, he and Marra decided after sorting through their English, came as "the cherry on top of the cake".

With that in mind, Inter Milan fans saw a chance at sunshine and frontiersmanship with a little football mingled in.

Giacomo Filippi, who travelled alone from Lucca in Tuscany, mapped out a sweep through Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

He walked the Corniche, revelled in the skyscrapers and noted how, varying from old European cities with more claustrophobic city centres, Abu Dhabi comes as spread-out, with "places very far from each other".

From the end of the football he would venture to Dubai with an eye toward looking at the Burj Al Arab because, he said: "I think in Italy this is the most famous thing. Because of the luxury. The most luxurious hotel in the world. I'm curious. The curiosity."

Within moments inside Zayed Sports City, the Inter Milan fans in their shirts reading J Zanetti and Massimo and Sneijder and Milito and Maicon rang the place with noise, especially after Dejan Stankovic scored after only three minutes for the Italian champions.

The previous night at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, the Internacional fans had brought along their considerable flair.

Some unfurled a huge red banner that covered most of an entire section and would have been a bear to wedge into an overhead compartment on either a plane or bus.

Six males participated in a novelty, wearing the same very-oversized shirt with six collars and "Brasil" across the front. And as a vast group enveloping the droplet of Congolese and African fans in their midst, the Brazilians did show early on their capacity for the kind of consuming noise available only in a stadium, but their din waned as Mazembe's 2-0 upset congealed.

Just then in the tapestry from the end of the stadium came late-match chants of "Africa! Africa!" - speaking for a 53-country continent.

While Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma defeated Al Wahda 4-1 the previous Saturday night in Zayed Sports City, the Korean fans made their section picturesque by holding up small yellow banners. Above them, the Mazembe band arrived and played on as if just to celebrate football.

A night before that in Mohammed bin Zayed, a Mexican flag appeared among fans from Pachuca, and two nights before them in that same stadium, you could spot a band of Hekari United fans from Papua New Guinea, acknowledged by their players from the pitch both before and after the match as they sat at one end in the lower deck beneath throngs of guest workers in the upper.

Such a mixture would be just about impossible but for football, as would a telltale fashion statement of this past Wednesday going on midnight outside Zayed Sports City. As three young Emirati men trudged out from the emptied stadium with the fan zone finally hushed, the khandoura of one proved visible only from the waist down. From the waist up, he had pulled over it a Samuel Eto'o Inter Milan shirt, an emblem of another uncommon global mingling.