x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Hazza bin Zayed Stadium a setting fit for Premier League kings

When Manchester City cross the white line onto the pitch Thursday, they will be sprinkling some well-earned magic dust on the most modern, state-of-the-art football ground in the UAE. Perhaps the Middle East. Not that Hazza bin Zayed Stadium needs much help.

Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, in Al Ain, has quickly become the UAE's crown jewel football facility. Photo courtesy Seven Media
Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, in Al Ain, has quickly become the UAE's crown jewel football facility. Photo courtesy Seven Media

When the new English Premier League champions cross the white line onto the pitch Thursday night, they will be sprinkling some well-earned magic dust on the most modern, state-of-the-art football ground in the UAE. Perhaps the Middle East.

Not that Hazza bin Zayed Stadium needs much help.

A high-profile friendly match against Al Ain was set for January, but had to be rescheduled, and now Manchester City arrive in the Garden City as newly crowned title winners.

The home team has already played several big games on their new ground, but few as high-profile as this, despite it being an exhibition match.

A pre-World Cup visit from Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and David Silva was always going to shine a spotlight on Al Ain Football Club’s brave new world.

For those in charge of running the new stadium, it’s a culmination of several years of relentless preparation and planning.

One man in particular brings unparalleled know-how to the enterprise. After 27 years at Wembley Stadium in England, Noel Jeffs is now charged with overseeing the “Home of UAE Football”, as he calls Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

As operations manager, his role covers a number of responsibilities, chief among them being supporters’ safety and welfare, which he monitors from a stadium control room.

“We have cutting-edge technology to make sure all supporters are safe, either coming to or leaving the stadium,” he said. “We have all the safety-check systems you would expect here, so if something does happen, such as a fire alarm going off, we can deal with it quickly and safely.”

Al Ain’s Omar Abdulrahman has already experienced playing at a packed Wembley during the 2012 Olympics, but the match against City should be the first time he has played at a nearly full Hazza bin Zayed.

“We have not had 25,000 fans here before, so there is a fresh challenge in that,” Jeffs said. “The hour before kick off is the crucial time, as that’s when most of the people turn up for the match, and with the added numbers for the City game, that will make it more challenging.”

It will not just be Al Ain residents making their way through the gates, either. Manchester City have a growing fan base in the UAE and the attendance will surely be swelled by thousands of expatriates and Emiratis paying homage to Manuel Pellegrini and his men.

“We hope to reserve the whole of the south stand for Manchester City,” Jeffs said. “Al Ain have a great support and it would create a terrific atmosphere to have both groups of supporters concentrated in one area each, rather than spread throughout the stadium.” Rashid Abdullah, who oversees the day-to-day running of the stadium, has approached the match as a community event.

“The preparation to welcome such a big and important team like Manchester City begins weeks before,” the stadium manager said.

“We are expecting a full house and we are working very closely with a number of partners, including the police, the municipality and with Manchester City, to make everything ready.”

Everything from parking, tickets, health and safety, work on the pitch, seating, food outlets and media facilities have been meticulously planned. The stadium is ready.

“The important thing is to make sure that everything runs according to the plan we have set out,” Abdullah said.

The stadium’s facilities manager, Khaled Al Darei, is confident that any unlikely safety issues or emergencies will be dealt with swiftly.

Then there are the bells and whistles. The string of hospitality boxes that line the main stand promise a level of service unrivalled in the UAE.

“All 10 lounges will be used for the Manchester City game – we plan to expand that number in the future,” Al Darei said. “They vary in size based on the requirements and are tailored to match the needs of the spectator and customer.”

Al Darei sees the use of the hospitality facilities extending beyond Manchester City’s visit, and even the football season.

“We offer a complete service to give you the feeling of being as comfortable as you would be at home,” he said. “We have [three] larger suites that can take up to 700 people and offer the same top-quality service to a larger crowd.

“Away from match days, these lounges can also be used for special training, meetings and events.”

These facilities will be available on non-match days for a broad range of events, including corporate functions.

The stadium will is an integral part of a new, wider community. Over the next four years, it will become the centrepiece of a planned 500,000 square-metre development that will include a 172-room hotel, a community of 700 residential units in a complex of apartments and green spaces, two office buildings, a sports centre, retail outlets and 50 restaurants.

But ultimately, everything is geared toward what takes place on the pitch.

Hazza bin Zayed is an arena in which footballers will want to play.

A stadium is likely to reassure the likes of Abdulrahman, Asamoah Gyan, Ibrahim Diaky and Alex Brosque of Al Ain’s desire to return to the top of the domestic game after a disappointing season.

After two seasons as runaway champions, this year’s sixth-place finish will not be tolerated again. Manchester City’s visit to Hazza bin Zayed signals a step into a new and, fans hope, successful future.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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