x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Football universally spoken, from Baniyas to England

Osman Samiuddin finds that globalisation of the game means that the football fans speak the language, from the Pro League to the Premier League.

Al Ain's traveling group of fans are known across the UAE and are as vocal and devoted as any group of fans across the world of football to their team.
Al Ain's traveling group of fans are known across the UAE and are as vocal and devoted as any group of fans across the world of football to their team.

I am not sure what I was expecting from the first football game in the UAE that I would see live from the stadium. But I thought before arriving at the Baniyas Stadium last Sunday, for the game between Baniyas and Al Ain, that it might somehow be different to experiencing live football in the UK, or even Saudi Arabia.

So it says something about the globality - the natural end destination of globalisation - of football that details aside, the broader picture was one that is painted across the football-playing world, the world over, every weekend.

First the details.

The crowds were much lower in numbers but not in spirit (more on that later). Conclusions cannot be made on the technical quality of football from one game alone, and it is unfair to compare across any but the very best leagues of the world. But what most of us want from football foremost, from any professional sport, was there: entertainment.

Two high-quality strikers in Asamoah Gyan (a great poster boy for football's shrinking world, a Ghanaian international who has gone from Italy's Udinese to France's Rennes to England's Sunderland to the UAE's Al Ain in less time than it takes a World Cup to come around) and Andre Senghor skilfully finished off at least two worthy, intricate moves.

Further, there were injuries, retaken penalties, a few cards and four goals at the end of which neither side could claim true ascendancy, so that the true blood of a football contest could be seen.

Some, no doubt, more seasoned reporters of the game were harsher in their assessment of the quality.

As we watched, one eye was kept on the television bringing images of a remarkable game between Sharjah and Al Nasr that eventually ended 5-4 to the latter in a late flurry of goals.

A young gentleman of the press sitting next to me assessed that game and the one we were at with a disapproving shake of the head: "Comedy. It's like a handball or basketball score".

In the way of purists, he probably had a point somewhere, precious as it may have been: preferring a 1-0 win over 5-4 is not dissimilar to cricket's hard core wanting a gritty Test match session of 40 runs and a wicket or two, over a Twenty20 innings of only boundaries.

To the more casual eyes the point can easily be ignored.

But the bigger picture is the more resonant one. What made the match, the experience, were the travelling fans of Al Ain, famous the UAE over for being the most committed. Al Wasl may have something to say about this, but then you would, too, if you had Diego Maradona as part of your club.

But Al Ain's fans confirm that football, and football following, is essentially the same the world over. You could go anywhere in the world, to any stadium, not know the language of the land, and still catch precisely the mood of a football game. The body language of footballers and their fans has become universal.

So, as Yasser Al Qahtani was taken off with an injury three minutes into the game, his Al Ain supporters stood as one to provide respectful applause.

Al Qahtani, incidentally, seemed to have his own little group of followers over from Saudi Arabia in the stands. And every time a tackle or a tug arrived late, or a player fell over theatrically, the indignation among both sets of fans was the swiftest reaction, followed by the uniform and universal hand signals demanding a card of some colour.

At one point, when a Baniyas player was down, his side leading and time running down, there was widespread frustration at the perceived time wasting and shouts for the player to go off. The songs were the high points, for even if you didn't understand them you could sense the witticism and devotion in them. Al Ain even have a song in Spanish for one of their former players, the Chilean, Jorge Valdivia ('Ti Amo Valdivia ...').

An already smallish stadium was not full by any stretch but you couldn't feel the empty spaces for the atmosphere and mood that had been created, a mood befitting of the one sport the entire world understands.