x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Cauldron of noise fit for a new era

The deafening roar as little magician Lionel Messi clinched Barcelona's extra-time winner to gift his side the Club World Cup represented a new era for football in the UAE.

The deafening roar as little magician Lionel Messi clinched Barcelona's extra-time winner to gift his side the Club World Cup represented a new era for football in the UAE. Thrilling and thunderous, emotional and electric, it is no mere coincidence that the best atmosphere ever witnessed at a football match in the Emirates came at the biggest sporting arena in the GCC.

Zayed Sports City, having cost a staggering U$327 million (Dh1.17bn), opened its gates in 1980; the complex's then 60,000-capacity football stadium at its heart. It hosted several Asian and Gulf tournaments, but it was not until 2003 that a global, international competition came to the capital: the Fifa World Youth Championships. Brazil Under 20s beat Spain in the final with both Dani Alves and Andres Iniesta, now teammates at Barcelona, on the field. There is little doubt, this week, that the two players will have noticed some differences; the result of a major expansion and redevelopment project.

The freshly-laid pitch - which requires 50 per cent less water than the previous turf - is in pristine condition, while the revamped dimly-lit changing rooms have provided an added suspense pre-match. And behind the scenes several upgrades have also been carried out: royal boxes expanded, media areas equipped with high-tech equipment and commentary boxes improved. But the most important alter-ation has seen the capacity decreased in order to meet Fifa's international safety standards.

The 45,000 seats have been installed in a variety of colours which organisers hoped would create an energy "even while empty". The acknowledgement that not every game will attract the 43,050 who turned out last night is both sensible and commendable. After all, in a country with a population of roughly 4.5 million, such high attendances equate to almost one percent of the entire country's residents.

Brazil's Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janiero, which was originally designed to hold 200,000 people, is due to undergo a similar renovation ahead of the city's hosting of the 2014 World Cup. I was fortunate enough to make a pilgrimage to the iconic arena earlier this year for a league match between Fluminense and Gremio, but departed through its hallowed turnstiles disappointed. The stadium's conversion in the late 1990s into an all-seated ground reduced the possible attendance to 87,000, but, sadly, even with the substantially smaller capacity the match was not a particularly pivotal tie and the spectators turned out accordingly. Sitting in such a vast stadium, surrounded by around 70,000 empty seats produced a hollow atmosphere akin to an amphitheatre.

Of course, that will not be the case when it hosts the 2014 World Cup final, as it did to great success in 1950, but the premise remains that for the smaller games the atmosphere is disheartening. Not so at Zayed Sports City. Last night's final, naturally, was of no issue, but even for the tournament's earlier games - criticised by Fifa president Sepp Blatter for their lack of spectators - the atmosphere was still superb. Much of that can be credited to the cauldron-like roofing that, to the delight of TP Mazembe's colourful tribal band, refuses to allow the sound to escape.

Messi's goal was watched around the world and the reaction heard across the capital, but the effects of the Club World Cup will be far more long lasting as the UAE looks to the future - a bid to bring back the World Youth Championships is already in the place. gmeenaghan@thenational.ae