x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Al Ain hopes there is no place like home

It will be intriguing to see if Hazza bin Zayed Stadium will provide an immediate change in fortune for Al Ain.

Al Ain will need to win a lot for the new Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, which can accommodate 25,000 spectators, to become a fortress for the Garden City club. Satish Kumar / The National
Al Ain will need to win a lot for the new Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, which can accommodate 25,000 spectators, to become a fortress for the Garden City club. Satish Kumar / The National

Al Ain will play their first match at the gleaming Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Friday, against Al Dhafra, in the 16th round of the Arabian Gulf League.

It is not the glamorous friendly with Manchester City that had been considered, an idea that ran afoul of a change in City’s fixture list, but a full-blooded league match against solid competition might prove a truer test of what the new home could mean for the hosts.

The match takes place with champions Al Ain at sixth in the league table, looking at a double-digit gap between themselves and leaders Al Ahli.

It will be intriguing to see if Hazza bin Zayed Stadium will provide an immediate change in fortune.

New stadiums, often costly, can make or a break clubs, with many socio-economic and geographical factors contributing to how well the teams perform, and how many more fans they draw, after the big move.

For smaller clubs who overreach, new stadiums can be bad news.

Massive construction costs and failure to fill the completed stadium can lead to financial turmoil.

Established in 1889, Darlington FC was one of the world’s oldest football clubs. For 120 years, they played their football at Feethams, surviving two world wars and a global depression.

Their move, in 2003, into the new Darlington Arena, however, set the club on the path to financial ruin.

It ceased to exist in 2010.

Darlington is an extreme example, but one that highlights the perils that befall clubs dependent mostly on gate receipts for survival.

For medium-sized clubs, a new stadium is no guarantee of instant success on or off the pitch, even with the projected increase in income.

In 2001, Southampton left their old, cosy ground of The Dell for St Mary’s while playing in the English Premier League, but four seasons later, they found themselves relegated to the second tier of English footbal when their move did not deliver the promised riches. After being placed in administration in 2009, Southampton were demoted from the Football League Championship to League One.

They eventually recovered and are now once again thriving among the English elite.

Al Ain, like most Gulf clubs, do not rely on attendance for survival and remain on solid financial ground thanks to the funding of their owners.

As one of the UAE’s biggest teams, they can, in relative terms, be compared to some of Europe’s bigger teams.

Far more than survival, their move is about maintaining success and building on it.

And, somewhat more intangibly, finding a new spiritual home.

In the long term, modern, attractive stadiums with increased capacity and corporate facilities – and the extra income they bring in – can only benefit a leading club. In the short term, results can be mixed.

Ajax FC’s first season at their new Amsterdam Arena may not have delivered a league title, but since then they have remained Holland’s leading club, winning the Eredivise six times.

In Italy, Juventus, who struggled to fill half of the old Stadio delle Alpi, have been champions in both seasons they have played at their new, often-packed home.

Juventus Stadium is one of only two club-owned grounds in Serie A, and the Turin club’s dominance looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, Arsenal have yet to win a trophy since their move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium in 2006.

The change of address has hardly been a disaster, with Arsenal consistently qualifying for the Uefa Champions League.

This season, as they top the Premier League table, could see the club’s long-term vision rewarded.

But it is trophies the fans crave.

Magical moments are what turn an array of steel, concrete and plastic, however stunningly designed, into a spiritual home.

For one club, a new stadium might not have reaped instant dividends, but it set in motion a series of developments that would lead to it becoming the richest club in the world, and now one of Europe’s most powerful teams.

In 2003, Manchester City left their old stadium of Maine Road for the City of Manchester Stadium, which had been built for the Commonwealth Games a year earlier.

Having a modern stadium, alongside a fan base guaranteed to fill it, instantly made City an attractive target for potential buyers and was a major factor in Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed’s purchase of the club in 2008.

The rest, as shown on May 13, 2012, is Premier League history.

That day, the Etihad went from being City’s new stadium to its true home.

Al Ain, arguably the UAE’s most famous club, with a loyal, noisy following, will hope the move to the new stadium will bring success like it did for Bayern Munich, Juventus and City.

Exactly when that happens will have a big say on how soon it takes for Hazza bin Zayed Stadium to feel like Al Ain’s spiritual home.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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