Paul Radley finds a quiet but welcome backdrop to football at the youth tournament
Northern Emirates build for the future
The ongoing AFC Under 19 Championship in Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah is a significant enough tournament in its own right and should not be considered a dress rehearsal for anything.
However, next year the Northern Emirates will also be integral to a wider international football carnival, when the 2013 Under 17 World Cup is played across the UAE.
We already know places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai are well equipped for major football events.
With the next of what the powers that be hope will become a series of Fifa tournaments here less than 12 months away, it is a good time to start getting things right in the north, too.
The modest, 3,000 capacity stadium behind Safeer Mall in Ras Al Khaimah may be quite an unprepossessing site.
However, as the moon rises over the silhouette of the Hajar mountains opposite, there are certainly far worse places to watch a game of football than from the Emirates Club's main stand.
Parking at the ground is perfectly adequate for the fixtures in this AFC tournament, but it was not exactly tested by vast crowds.
Put another way, shoppers at the neighbouring mall were not short of options for parking spaces despite Monday night's matches.
To call these matches the hottest ticket in town is not really saying much. It is not exactly The Lion King on Broadway, but RAK's residents are still happy to have the matches - especially but not solely those involving the UAE - here.
The ground itself, which is home to a club who have been up and down between the nation's top two divisions in recent years, is less well appointed than many Pro League grounds.
For example, the public toilets in the main grandstand are basic and share space with an industrial washing machine. But upgrades will continue as a direct result of the major matches being played here.
The legacy issue
Football has deep roots in places such as Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Sharjah and Dubai. Less so here.
No one grasps that more keenly than Eid Baroot, the coach of the UAE Under 19 side.
The proud Emirati manager, who has in the past termed himself a "very native local", is a great man of Ras Al Khaimah football.
He has coached the emirate's two main clubs, Al Jazira Al Hamra and Emirates Club, and notably helped the latter overachieve by guiding them to the 2010 President's Cup title. He believes that staging tournaments of this standing here are vital to the overall health of the game in this country.
"Last year we saw Real Madrid announce plans to build a facility here, this year we have this tournament, and next year there is the [U17 World Cup]," Baroot said.
"It is a good idea to stage the matches in the Northern Emirates because they really need facilities here. So much construction has already been done at this club and at Fujairah, because of this tournament.
"Dubai has fantastic stadiums, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, too. But now if they want to have huge, champion players, they have to look at the whole of the emirates. From this I think they will get something."
One thing staging matches in a relatively parochial centre guarantees is home advantage.
For example, the home-dominated crowd for UAE against Iran on Monday night was comfortably into four figures.
A better showing, then, than the full senior side have attracted on their two previous outings on home soil, at matches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The host club did their best to foster that support, too. In additional to the choreographed chanting led by a supporter with a loudhailer that is the norm for matches here, club officials supplemented the ambience by handing out flags to all UAE supporters.
"This tournament is in our country and all the people should be coming out supporting their country," Barooot said.
"I hope everyone will come to watch the [decisive final group match against Japan tonight], because the national team will make them very happy."
It is fair to assume on this evidence the Northern Emirates are unlikely to harvest much in the way of additional expatriate support.
For instance, Kuwait's fan base was negligible in their pool defeat against Japan at Emirates Club on Monday.
Japan, by contrast, were aided in their victory push by a vocal group of around 50 fans.
Most had made the trip from Dubai, a few were based in Ras Al Khaimah, while three, including one supporter noisily beating a drum, had travelled to the UAE from Japan especially for this tournament.
Atsushi Murakami is in the midst of his third foreign voyage following Japan this year, having taken in a tournament in Toulon, France, as well as the London Olympics.
"It might be better to have the matches in Dubai but for qualifiers like this we are used to [watching in] the countryside," said Murakami, who will head to Muscat for the senior team's qualifier against Oman at the end of next week.
Even Iran were quiet
Despite the proximity of the Northern Emirates to Iran, there were few away supporters when the UAE met the highly rated Iranians in their pool match, two hours after the end of Japan's win over Kuwait.
Iran's national team are usually well supported on these shores, for instance when they made up the majority of a crowd in excess of 20,000 for a friendly against Brazil in Abu Dhabi two years ago.
"I was surprised when I heard it would be played in Ras Al Khaimah," said Akbar Argi, the Iran coach.
"We have a lot of Iranian people in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and even Sharjah. But the AFC made the decision to play here and I don't have a problem with it.
"The host must use all the available advantages and I can't complain about this."
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