x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Gulf Cup: UAE fans turn Bahrain black, white, red and green all over

Paul Radley braves passport control in Bahrain and the accompanying fun and chaos.

UAE's fans cheer for their team during the Gulf Cup final against Iraq.
UAE's fans cheer for their team during the Gulf Cup final against Iraq.

8am (UAE time) The last - and so far only - time the UAE won the Gulf Cup of Nations, Dubai's Road and Transport Authority might have had their most financially lucrative day ever.

The aftermath of that 2007 triumph was chiefly memorable for the happy carnage on the roads.

In the spirit of euphoria, the traffic police probably turned a blind eye to the myriad violations of the celebrating masses.

If today is going to provide a repeat, there is little hint of it on Sheikh Zayed Road as yet. On a crisp winter morning in Dubai, all is quiet.

 

8.30am Rather than the white national team shirts, a kandura and overcoat is the dress code of choice for the majority of the 70 or so supporters assembled at Zone F (standing for "football", surely) of Dubai International Airport Terminal 1.

The travelling fans are still showing their colours in other ways, though. Many are wearing scarves in the colours of the UAE flag, while one older supporter rests a backpack full of green, white, red and black streamers on his lap.

 

11am (Bahrain time) And so begins the Bahrain passport control lottery. After a small wait and a few official phone calls, a single-entry visa is procured, relatively hassle-free, for five dinars.

The lively Emirati hordes pouring off the Arabian Gulf version of the old Football Specials from across the water appear to suffer few problems, whether or not they are wearing comedy wigs in UAE colours.

Not everyone is so lucky, though. One Canadian-born Iraqi, travelling from his home in Abu Dhabi, has been in immigration limbo since 5am. He and his father are still none the wiser as to whether they will be let in to watch their nation play.

"I don't know what the problem is," the teenage supporter says. "We beat Bahrain, maybe that is the problem."

Others are worse off. One heroically cheerful businessman has been waiting for some sort of advisory for 12 hours. The time he was supposed to be presenting a seminar at a conference in Manama passed 35 minutes ago.

 

12.15pm By rights, players should be riddled with nerves on big cup final days like this. Omar Abdulrahman, the UAE playmaker in whom so many hopes for this evening are invested, clearly never got that memo judging by his demeanour in the lobby of the team hotel.

The Diplomat Radisson is a hive of Emirati supporters, and the Al Ain dynamo chats cheerfully to anyone who wants to. When he and his teammates board the coach for a pre-match de-stress, a convoy of fans follow them.

One 4x4 has a flag-waving Emirati protruding from the sunroof.

On the back windscreen reads the legend: Qatar done, Bahrain done, Oman done, Kuwait done, Iraq download 99 per cent.

Confidence boldly worn.

 

3pm It feels as though the whole of the native population of Al Ain, Sharjah and maybe a few other satellite towns, too, has decamped to Bahrain for the day.

The National Stadium in east Riffa apparently holds up to 35,000 people. At kick off in the third-placed match between Kuwait and the host nation, the ground has been entirely commandeered by touring Emiratis. And this is still four hours before the final begins.

The stadium itself is quirky, with one massive grandstand dwarfing a modest open stand opposite.

There are no seats at all at either end, but it does have modernist floodlights that look like something from War of the Worlds.

6pm Fabio Cannavaro, the former Al Ahli captain and Italy great, probably has a posh seat reserved for him, but elsewhere it is mayhem.

An hour before kick off, the ground is already well over capacity, judging by the scrum of people stood in every gangway.

10pm Most people might think this celebration was orchestrated by Omar Abdulrahman, but the after-party has more UAE fingerprints on it than that.

Half a million dollars and two tonnes worth of Chinese fireworks and pyrotechnics equipment were imported from Dubai for the final's fireworks show.

The UAE-based shipping company who handled the order had to apply for special permission for the order, as importing fireworks into Bahrain in usually prohibited.

But it was Abdulrahman who lit the fuse.

pradley@thenational.ae

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