x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bitter rivalry between Al Ahli and Al Ain actually good for UAE football

Chants, insults and booing from President's Cup semi-final between Al Ahli and Al Ain should be music to ears of anyone with vested interest in UAE football.

Al Ain manager Cosmin Olaroiu, in the grey shirt, has to be restrained by team officials and security while clashing with referees at the conclusion of his team's 2-1 loss to Al Ahli. Al Ittihad
Al Ain manager Cosmin Olaroiu, in the grey shirt, has to be restrained by team officials and security while clashing with referees at the conclusion of his team's 2-1 loss to Al Ahli. Al Ittihad
The young man in the car next to me rolled down his window and waved his Al Ahli scarf. He then pointed to the sky and simply said, "Inshalla".
God willing.
It was as a friendly a moment as Sunday night's President's Cup semi-final between Al Ain and Al Ahli would see.
To say these two clubs don't exactly get along would be the understatement of the season. The rivalry between the two best teams in the country gets bigger by the match. And nastier.
Last month's Pro League clash was a fiery, disjointed match that saw a referee's assistant struck on the head by an thrown object from the crowd in the dying minutes. But if you thought that was a tempestuous affair, it had nothing on the outright hostility of Sunday night's clash, a 2-1 win for Al Ahli.
Two boisterous sets of fans. Three goals. Two Al Ain players sent off. Cosmin Olaroiu sent to the stands. A disallowed late goal. And several police interventions. It was, at times, cringeworthy.
Yet utterly brilliant to watch. Bear with me on this.
There well be those who say that it was yet another poor advert for Emirati football. After all, when the nation's golden boy, Omar Abdulrahman, gets sent off for dissent, something must have gone wrong somewhere. And needless to say, no one in their right mind would condone the type of incident that took place last month, either. Last night's juvenile pushing and shoving at the end, meanwhile, was just that; juvenile and nothing more.
But Sunday's mayhem underscores an inescapable truth: Al Ain and Al Ahli now have a bitter rivalry worthy of the name. And it is a rivalry that the game in this country desperately needs.
The chants, the insults and the booing should be music to the ears of anyone with a vested interest in football in the UAE.
Here's why: Football fans love a villain. Witness the endless discussions surrounding the likes of Luis Suarez and John Terry. Loved by their own fans, loathed by opponents. And make no mistake, the critics will miss them when they're gone.
Football in the UAE has very few villains. Opposing players often fall over themselves offering platitudes and hard-luck messages to opponents. Opposing fans barely acknowledge each other. It's heartwarming. But not very exciting.
Now, however, we seem to finally have two teams that genuinely dislike each other. The added needle is there for all to see.
Matches in the UAE continue to suffer from abysmally low attendances. And on the few occasions that large crowds appear, fans often show a detachment from the action, not to mention from opposition fans, which in the majority of cases barely exceeds a 100 or so.
Sunday was different.
Between the two managers, the players and the supporters, there seemed an extra-competitive edge. That extra nastiness - a welcome nattiness, dare we.
Al Ahli had a few thousand fans decked in identical red T-shirts, giving their end a colourful, intimidating look. "Red Boys" said a large banner. "You'll never walk alone", read another.
Early goals from Grafite and Basheer Saeed ensured a party atmosphere in the first half for those in red.
By contrast, the Al Ain fans endured a nightmare. Rarely have their fans been this subdued this season. Or, as the match progressed, this angry. Abuse was directed at the gleeful Ahli fans and players, the referee, and even their own underperforming players.
They briefly rallied their team after the restart, but it didn't last. Bad tackles from both sides had both benches baying for blood. Mohammed Ahmed of Al Ain walked first, before a late goal by Alex Brosque raised Al Ain's hopes. But there was no great escape, only dejection. Especially for Abdulrahman, who was sent off for a second yellow card, both for arguing with the referee.
Even before wrapping up the Pro League title, Al Ain's form had dipped alarmingly. The President's Cup exit, following on from the AFC Champions League dismissal, ensures the season will end on a downbeat note for the champions. That the latest defeat was handed by the team that beat them 6-3 on the opening day of the season will hurt the most.
You can bet that Olaroiu will be plotting revenge already. And that is great news for the game in the UAE.
Meanwhile in Dubai, Al Ahli's fans, and the young man who had his prayers answered, will be celebrating putting one over their, we can safely say now, bitter rivals.
akhaled@thenational.ae
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