x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bridging the gap between Middle East and English Premier League with frequent-flyer miles

Watching their favourite English Premier League side on television does not suffice for some dedicated Middle East fans, writes Ali Khaled.

Left to right: Jassim al Fardan, Husein al Fardan and Ahmed al Hamadi are just a few of the thousands of Emiratis who support Manchester City in the English Premier League. Silvia Razgova / The National
Left to right: Jassim al Fardan, Husein al Fardan and Ahmed al Hamadi are just a few of the thousands of Emiratis who support Manchester City in the English Premier League. Silvia Razgova / The National

The Manchester United fans, for the moment, refused to turn on their manager. The shout went out: “Every single one of us stand behind David Moyes!” Perhaps more in defiance than anything else.

Samuel Eto’o had just given Chelsea the lead; Stamford Bridge erupted, several large Chelsea flags were unfurled. As were, less conspicuously, a few smaller ones; a Lebanese flag, an Omani one, and one from the UAE.

In the United section, another UAE-based United supporter held his head in his hands.

For some fans, the weekly dose of English Premier League football on television, and it is a heavy one, is just not enough.

“I’ve been travelling to games for over 25 years now,” Waiel Al Qaimi, an Abu-Dhabi-based Manchester United fan, said before kick-off. “I’ve seen us win the league, and been to Champions League finals. I’ve also been lucky enough to meet Matt Busby, Alex Ferguson, Paul Scholes and many others.”

These days, the managing partner at Detecon International in Abu Dhabi often plans business trips to coincide with United’s fixtures.

It is a costly pursuit. For this match, Al Qaimi spent £300 (Dh1,800) for his away-end ticket.

As ever, those away fans were the ones making most of the noise at Stamford Bridge. But on the pitch United, despite an encouraging start, were yet again a collection of players who bore little resemblance to the team who delivered Ferguson’s last title, in May.

“I still have faith in Moyes, and I respect the fact he’s put out an attacking team today,” the 44-year-old Canadian-Iraqi added.

The line-up failed to deliver; United lost 3-1.

“This season I sometimes feel the team has shown far less passion than the fans,” Al Qaimi says at full time, visibly angry. “It’s hard to spend all that money and time, come all the way over here and watch such a poor performance.”

The Chelsea fans, from West London, Muscat or Dubai, had a far happier weekend, as did their city rivals Arsenal, who continue to top the Premier League.

A day earlier, at the Emirates Stadium, Arsene Wenger’s side had strolled to a comfortable 2-0 win over Fulham in front of an even more international crowd than the one at Stamford Bridge. Certainly, the club’s hospitality facilities, available to fans from all over the world, would have been unthinkable in the pre-Premier League era.

Arsenal’s dominance, and Fulham’s lack of ambition, ensured a relatively quiet atmosphere, prompting one French journalist to recall the days of the “library”, the name opposition fans bestowed on Arsenal’s old ground, Highbury, in its quieter moments.

Outside the ground, new visitors are reminded of the club’s history: statues of the legendary manager Herbert Chapman, the captain Tony Adams and the French superstar Thierry Henry were unveiled in December 2011 as part of Arsenal’s 125th anniversary celebrations. Mobile phones clicking, the visitors paid their respects.

London’s cosmopolitan clubs are an obvious attraction for visiting fans, but football “tourism” can be seen throughout England. The source of visitors may surprise, too.

Results from a VisitBritain survey revealed that approximately 750,000 visitors to the UK went to a football match during 2010.

Among those, visitors from Norway were most likely to attend a football match: one in every 13 do so. Second were those from the UAE (one in 20), a number including Emiratis as well as other nationalities and expatriates returning home. In terms of volume, numbers from 2011 showed just under 10,000 visitors from the UAE attended a Premier League match while on a visit to the UK that year.

One football ground increasingly likely to see visitors from the UAE is the Etihad, home of Manchester City, the club owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed.

The 2011/12 champions have been running match-day trips from Abu Dhabi for the past three seasons.

In that time, the number of fans who have signed up to Sky Blue – the official UAE fan club run by the club and Etihad Airways – has grown to more than 18,000.

The free-scoring team’s excellent form this season under the new coach Manuel Pellegrini, not to mention their looming Uefa Champions League tie with Barcelona, will ensure those numbers will continue to head north.

For the red half of Manchester, the immediate future is less rosy, but that’s unlikely to affect their attendance. Wherever they live.

“I’ll be back for United’s trip to Crystal Palace next month,” Al Qaimi says. That sort of loyalty is priceless.

Ali Khaled was a guest of VisitBritain while in London


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