x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Al Ain supporters paint a very different image

Their fans have developed a reputation for unruly behaviour, but, as Osman Samiuddin discovers, the vocal Al Ain supporters add verve and vibrancy to the terraces.

An MC leads the Al Ain fans in songs during their 2-2 draw against Baniyas at the weekend. Mohammed Rashid believes the supporters are targeted because of the club’s past successes.
An MC leads the Al Ain fans in songs during their 2-2 draw against Baniyas at the weekend. Mohammed Rashid believes the supporters are targeted because of the club’s past successes.

Here is a bond, not just of support, but true, undying love. Six minutes have passed at the Baniyas Stadium between Baniyas FC and Al Ain. One of the visitors' summer arrivals, the Saudi Arabia captain Yasser Al Qahtani has been carried off on a stretcher. Baniyas have also taken the lead with a slickly-worked goal.

The stadium is compact and low. The open lands around it generate a cool breeze this December afternoon and only six minutes in, disappointment is shaping up for Al Ain. The response of the travelling fans behind the Baniyas goal, however, is to crank up the volume. The MC, one of three, takes the microphone and begins.

"Ma'alesh, Ma'alesh," he comforts his posse: "Never mind, never mind." Then he launches into one of the club songs, "Habibkum min? ... Ainawee!" ("Who is your beloved? ... Al Ain!") Like French, Arabic is a language you do not have to understand to love the sound of, and there is a rhythm and lyricism to it, the throaty "H" and the "Ai" in "Ainawee".

The fans around him respond, swaying, clapping, pausing in time with his delivery and the beat of the drummers, a swaying small mass of purple. In the 12th minute they will an equaliser through Asamoah Gyan, as if in some secret contract with authorities to get louder and louder until someone scores.

Apart from two minutes at the end of the first half, when Baniyas take the lead again, Al Ain's fans do not stop until the final whistle. After the match, their coach Cosmin Olaroiu has a simple response about the fans and the headlines they have made recently. "I hope all teams in the UAE have fans like Al Ain."

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One of the peculiarities of football in the UAE - to the unaccustomed - is the low spectator turnouts in the Pro League. It should not be taken to mean that love for football is lacking, simply that fans express their support in other ways.

"Clubs have to work to convince fans to come to the stadium," said Carlo Nohra, Al Ain's chief executive. "We don't have to work hard to transform people into fans because the majority of people are already. We have to transform fans from being armchair spectators into event spectators."

As a former chief executive of the league, Nohra has been a keen advocaat of transforming the match day experience. His own club now - as well as, to an extent, Al Jazira and Al Wasl - are exceptions to the general view of stay away supporters. In fact, as a newcomer, the first thing you will be repeatedly told is that turnouts are low across the board. Except Al Ain.

There are some reasons for this that cannot be easily emulated. A rich history, as the club's head organiser of fans, Mohammad Rashid said, is one. "The club they support is a club of championships, titles, and trophies." But as Rashid - also widely referred to as "Omda", or loosely, "chief" - added, it is the only club in a city "which has the highest number of local inhabitants among the UAE's emirates."

The love for Al Ain is one many clubs in small cities the world over will recognise. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are big cities with diverse populations and multiple, glamorous clubs to follow. Al Ain FC are, as Nohra acknowledges, very much the heart of the city itself.

"It's the nature of Al Ain city [that the club is so central to it]," said Nohra. "Everything revolves around it. It hasn't quite sunk in still how much the club actually means to the fans. But what is really important … is that our fans come out and really express their feelings. It's something missing not only in the UAE but many other countries."

But it is not simply that the club have existed and fans have come as an inevitable consequence. The support is taken seriously; Rashid and his team are a dedicated resource who liaise, organise and interact with other fans daily.

The band are a constant presence. "It is a group following Al Ain Fans Society and they are committed to the team all season, in every match," Rashid said. "In fact, there is an officer for the fans, the singers and the drummers. The society is the only official support for the club. We work on establishing a fan base in every emirate, but we don't differentiate between the fans and the society members."

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Al Ain have been in the news recently, defending their fans' behaviour from denunciations by Al Wasl after a game two weeks ago. The club insists the fans' chants at Diego Maradona were in no way offensive.

Instead they sound like an introduction if you will, in the joshing language of football fandom: "Hey Maradona, Hey Maradona, listen" they sang, before acquainting him with another of their famous songs (perhaps "Al Ain Biladi ... Jomhorak Yenadi" which means, "Al Ain is my home … your fans are calling"?).

Last season the club had two home games taken away for poor behaviour so there is a sense, according to Rashid at least, that a special eye is kept out for their fans.

"What is caused by other clubs' fans is double of what is done by Al Ain fans," he said. "We know Al Ain is targeted wherever they go, so we've held many awareness activities for not getting any penalty from the FA. A big club like Al Ain is always in the disciplinary focus and others are not. This is the success tax."

At least on evidence from the Baniyas game there is nothing indecent or threatening in their behaviour. It is, in fact, a bracing experience to see such hearty and witty support: at one point, as Gyan readied to take a penalty, the MC suddenly broke off from singing to ask supporters, in English, to respect the concentration of the moment: "Silent, silent please." As soon as Gyan scored, the band kicked up again.

They are knowledgeable too, applauding good passes or defensive interceptions. They also enthusiastically boo opposition corner-kick takers, call for cards regularly and take philosophical offence with any refereeing decision not in their favour. Of course they do. That is just the way of football supporters around the world.

Occasionally if matters boil over, well, it's hardly hooliganism. It is precisely the kind of heat you would want in a league. "It is natural to have such excitement in every 'clasico' since Al Ain and Al Wasl have the biggest fan bases," said Rashid about that game. "In fact, if there are no so-called controversies, matches will be tasteless … boring."

osamiuddin@thenational.ae