x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

After the cars come the boots

It will be the capital's biggest test yet as thousands of football fans pour in for the Club World Cup in December, requiring beds, meals and transport. Already, hotels and other agencies are working out how to meet the challenge.

Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed, honorary president of the UAE Football Association and chairman of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, second from left, talks to Jérôme Valcke, the Fifa secretary general, at the formal unveiling of the Club World Cup emblem at Zayed Sports City Stadium.
Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed, honorary president of the UAE Football Association and chairman of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, second from left, talks to Jérôme Valcke, the Fifa secretary general, at the formal unveiling of the Club World Cup emblem at Zayed Sports City Stadium.

ABU DHABI // The dust will barely have had time to settle on Yas Marina Circuit after its inaugural Grand Prix in November before the capital has to brace itself for yet another invasion by passionate sports fans.

Eight months from now and just a month after the Abu Dhabi race, tens of thousands of football supporters will descend on Abu Dhabi from Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas and Oceania to support teams competing in world football's most prestigious club tournament, the Club World Cup. At last year's tournament in Japan, 15,000 Manchester United fans saw their team lift the trophy for the first time. Depending on results, teams that could take part this year include the widely supported European juggernauts of Barcelona, Liverpool and Bayern Munich.

Already the venue for major tennis and golf tournaments, the capital is becoming accustomed to playing host to major sporting events. This one will be the stiffest test yet of the ability of the city's travel and hospitality industry to accommodate and transport fans, organisers and the teams themselves. "It would be interesting in terms of organisation and scale of the event itself; we will need to be extremely well organised," said Jean-Pierre Trabut, general manager at Le Méridien hotel, who added that the Formula One race on Nov 1 would be an "excellent rehearsal".

"We will need to know what hotels are going to be affected by the organising body and then we need to understand what role we will have as a host. "The press will be at one of the hotels, you will also have the sporting organisation and the organising body to accommodate." Issues to be ironed out in the coming months include the logistics of moving fans and teams from hotels to the grounds at Zayed Sports City and Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, as well as restaurant and bar operating hours and hotel rates between Dec 9 and 19. An official cap on room rates is widely expected.

Although the capital's hotels say their occupancy rates have defied the economic slowdown, many welcomed the potential boost from the Club World Cup. Demand for hotel rooms is expected to spill over into Al Ain and Dubai. "Like any other major event, whether it's economic, sporting or music, I think it will have a very strong impact on the hospitality industry," said Mr Trabut. "People will discover Abu Dhabi the same way they discovered Dubai at one stage through different worldwide events."

Reema Baroudi, the director of communications and PR at the InterContinental Abu Dhabi, said the hotel had already begun to take bookings that coincide with the 10-day tournament. "This will have a very positive impact on our occupancy," she said. Abu Dhabi will host the tournament for the next two years, before it returns to Japan, where it has been held for the past four years. The capital's bid emphasised the UAE's central location between Europe, Asia and Africa, allowing easy access for the global football community. The favourable time zones were also highlighted.

The city has held international football tournaments before, most recently the Fifa Youth World Championships 2003 and the Gulf Cup in 2007, although neither involved such well-supported teams. The seven sides involved in the Club World Cup - the UAE league champions and the winners of each of the six continental cups - will compete over eight matches for a prize fund of US$16.5 million (Dh61m), with the winners earning $5m.

Three local organisations will be responsible for delivering and promoting the competition, the UAE Football Association, the Abu Dhabi Sports Council and the Executive Affairs Authority of Abu Dhabi. A spokeswoman for the event's organising committee said it was working with local authorities and international experts to ensure a "smooth and seamless event across all areas of operation", including transport, parking, crowd control and health and safety.

Other challenges it faces include completing the refurbishment and infrastructure work on the host stadiums and local training fields. The spokeswoman said the work would help to create jobs. Jérôme Valcke, general secretary of world football's governing body, Fifa, said after inspecting the "excellent" facilities at Zayed Sports City that "the first challenge" for the UAE was to stage a tournament comparable to the level reached in Japan.

Much of the organising committee's focus will be on "engaging and exciting" the local community through several youth football events to generate interest before the tournament kicks off. Tickets will go on sale in late summer at prices yet to be determined. Organisers say tickets will be "extremely affordable for the whole population" to ensure that stadiums are filled. "Football is the number one sport in the UAE so we're confident that there will be significant interest and all matches will be played in front of big crowds," the organising committee's spokeswoman said.

Anticipation is already building among local football fans. Abdul Kader, 29, a Real Madrid supporter from Algeria, said: "We have never had this kind of thing in Abu Dhabi. It's good if it can bring more tourists and everyone has the opportunity to watch. Of course I will go if the tickets are cheap enough." Humaid Abubakar, 33, from Dubai, whose father played for Al Nasr Club, said the event might give international football supporters an insight into local culture and development.

Omar Khamis, 56, from Tanzania, added: "It is an opportunity for the Gulf to start to host important events and to improve the football standard in the country. It will also show how interested the Arab people are in football." rditcham@thenational.ae