x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

At Club World Cup, the first goal is winning more fans

Al Ahli and Auckland City hope for extra support when they face each other in the tournament opener at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.

The Auckland City supporter Belinda Jane stands with team members, from left, Riki van Steeden, Milos Nikolic, Paul Urlovic and Ivan Vicelich.
The Auckland City supporter Belinda Jane stands with team members, from left, Riki van Steeden, Milos Nikolic, Paul Urlovic and Ivan Vicelich.

ABU DHABI // One club has travelled 14,000km to reach Abu Dhabi. The other plays its football just up the Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. But on Wednesday, when Auckland City and Al Ahli look to the stands of the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium during the opening match of the Fifa Club World Cup, both sides hope to receive more support than usual.

In the case of Auckland City, the team will be hoping to be cheered on by fans who made much shorter trips to reach the stadium than did the club. Along with a few dozen loyal fans who are making the trek across nine time zones to the capital from New Zealand, expatriate supporters who have made the UAE their home are preparing to make their voices heard and spur on their team to victory in the first match of the 11-day, eight-match tournament that guarantees US$5 million (Dh18.4m) to the champions.

Around 5,000 regular Al Ahli supporters are also expected to make the trip along the Sheikh Zayed Road from Dubai to be in Abu Dhabi for their team. The local team can expect fans from other UAE Pro League clubs to leave their usual rivalries aside and rally round the only UAE team in the competition. The loyal Al Ahli fan Mohammed Ahmed Shaker, 30, said clubs such as Al Dhafra and Al Ain have pledged their support. Mr Shaker, who works in the banking sector, said he has been in touch with supporters from those clubs as well as Al Wahda.

"Everybody should come and support because at the end of the day we should be supporting the club representing the UAE," he said. Although the expatriate Kiwi fans and the Al Ahli supporters may share the same country, when it comes to Wednesday night, they will stand as rivals, albeit friendly ones. "I'm a New Zealander so when a New Zealand sports team comes to this part of the world, New Zealanders will support that team," said Ian Hall, 63. He and several co-workers at an education consultancy in Abu Dhabi have tickets for the opening match, which is due to kick off at 8pm. "When you are away from your home country you get very patriotic and any excuse to go along and support something from your country becomes important."

The winner of the match gains a place in the quarter-finals against Atlante of Mexico. A win in that match would set up a high-profile date with the glamour club Barcelona, the European champions, in the tournament's semi-finals. It would be a fairy tale for either club should they make it that far, but some fairy tales come true, especially in football. Mehdi Ali, the coach at Al Ahli, said vocal and emotional support were important to his club. "Any game we play is for the fans and if there are no fans then there is no motivation for the players," he said. "The fans provide the inspiration for our team and our team spirit.

"I am sure we will have great support for this tournament, and that can push us to do better. I think we can use the home advantage to help us win." Al Ahli's loyal fans seem to be in a confident mood. "We are looking forward to Barcelona," said Mr Shaker, who attends every match and goes to some training sessions. "Inshallah, I am believing. I think we will win [over Auckland] 3-0." "As a fan, it's very wonderful," said Saood Belshalat, 22, a manager of Al Ahli's rugby club and a long-time fan of the football club. "I get too excited for this kind of game because it is a new kind of football."

Belinda Jane, from Auckland, is also in an ebullient mood, sensing that victory is within her team's grasp. In fact, so confident is she that she has already purchased tickets for the final and is "hoping beyond hope they are going to be there". To show her support, Mrs Jane met members of the Auckland City club yesterday as they arrived in Abu Dhabi. She was rewarded with a team shirt. "You will hear me cheering," she said. "You will hear me above anybody else."

For New Zealand expatriates, it will be a chance to show some pride in their home country. Rugby is the top sport in the country, but football fans such as Fergus Grady, 23, say the sport received a big boost last month with the national team qualifing for the World Cup finals for the first time since 1982 by defeating Bahrain in a two-match playoff. "That was pretty special" said Mr Grady, who grew up in New Zealand's capital, Wellington. The cities of Auckland and Wellington are traditional rivals, but Mr Grady is putting aside any ill-will during the tournament.

He is working for the education consultants Educating Global during the day but hopes to make it down to the match. "Al Ahli will have the home support but there's a lot of hope at the moment for New Zealand sport," he said. Ian Hall, who lived in Ras al Khaimah for five years before moving to Abu Dhabi, said: "I think the New Zealand team playing the UAE team, that is a bit of a dream draw," he said.

mchung@thenational.ae