x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Fans queue to snap up 100s of free flights to cheer on UAE in Gulf Cup

In total, Etihad Airways has laid on 872 free seats for fans eager to watch the UAE national football team compete in the Gulf Cup after a directive from President Sheikh Khalifa.

Emiratis register their names for a free flight to Bahrain to watch their national football team. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Emiratis register their names for a free flight to Bahrain to watch their national football team. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

ABU DHABI // Fans of the UAE national football team yesterday lined up patiently for a free seat on one of six flights to Bahrain to watch their heroes play in Tuesday's Gulf Cup semi-final against reigning champions Kuwait.

Doors opened at 10am and by noon, 200 seats were already allocated to fans who turned up at Al Jazira Club in the capital. By 4pm, there were only a few seats left on one of planes that will fly out on Tuesday morning.

There were similar scenes in Dubai as supporters from the city and the Northern Emirates queued up at the head office of the UAE Football Association in Al Khawaneej in the city yesterday.

Etihad Airways has made available 872 free seats on four planes for fans after a directive from the President, Sheikh Khalifa. Two other flights are being operated by other airlines, with the six planes carrying a total of 1,400 fans.

In Abu Dhabi, there was a long, steady line of fans throughout the day hoping to see their national team reach Friday's Gulf Cup final.

"It has been very successful, and a lot of real fans turned up for the chance to see their national team," said Ali Al Kalykobi, an organiser at Al Jazira.

Sheikh Khalifa's initiative was launched "in recognition of [the team's] good performance, as well as in response to calls by the fans to provide moral support to the team in the tournament", according to the state news agency, Wam.

At noon, a queue of about 60 football fans waited patiently. One of them was Nasser Al Massbi, who had fond memories of travelling to Bahrain to watch the UAE beat Saudi Arabia to make it to the 1986 final, only to lose against Kuwait.

"It was a great trip and when I heard about this, I wanted to see them do it again," he said.

This time he was hopeful the Gulf Cup would return to the UAE for only the second time in 43 years.

"My son was queuing up at 8am and he said I should be able to get a seat," said Mr Al Massbi, a 45-year-old Al Ain fan .

Fans will get to watch the national team play Kuwait in the semi-final after the reigning champions beat Saudi Arabia 1-0 last night.

The one-day trip includes meals, flights and transport to and from the stadium.

Students Faris Yousef and Ahmed Omar heard about the flights through their BlackBerry Messenger service.

"I got the news two days ago and we knew we had to come down," Mr Yousef said. The 18-year-old goes to all of Al Wahda's games and has attended UAE international matches several times.

Mr Omar, who was home on holiday from his studies in the US, said the game would be one of his visit's highlights before he flew back later this week. "I support Al Jazira and this is a great opportunity to see the UAE again," the 19-year-old said.

In Dubai, there were similar scenes of long queues and fans continued to wait in the hope they could get their hands on a ticket to the match even when the doors to the football association closed early.

The UAE team enters the Gulf Cup's semi-final unbeaten after topping their group.

In its opening game, the squad defeated Qatar 3-1 before they beat the home team, Bahrain, 2-1 on Tuesday. After resting eight players for the final group game, the side paved the way to Tuesday's semi-final with two late goals in the final 10 minutes against Oman.

The UAE Embassy in Manama will be open for 24 hours to help fans during the Gulf Cup.

eharnan@thenational.ae