x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pro League a long way from Milan

As is the case in most countries located on this football-shaped planet, the UAE's appetite for the beautiful game is insatiable.

A near sell-out crowd watched Mathieu Bodmer, left, and his Paris Saint-Germain teammates battle Robinho, right, and AC Milan. Down the road, Al Shabab and Al Ain were playing to a respectable crowd of over 5,000.
A near sell-out crowd watched Mathieu Bodmer, left, and his Paris Saint-Germain teammates battle Robinho, right, and AC Milan. Down the road, Al Shabab and Al Ain were playing to a respectable crowd of over 5,000.

As is the case in most countries located on this football-shaped planet, the UAE's appetite for the beautiful game is insatiable.

More than 10,000 Emiratis, Spaniards, Indians, Britons, French, Italians and even a sprinkling of Brazilians filled the Rashid Stadium Wednesday night to watch AC Milan face Paris Saint-Germain.

That much was to be expected.

It was the fourth Dubai Football Challenge the emirate has hosted and each year the event flirts with every event organisers' favourite phrase: "Sold out".

Yet what was perhaps not so expected was the news that five kilometres along the road, at the Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium, approximately 5,000 spectators had turned out to watch Al Shabab take on Al Ain.

Such an attendance would have been highly unlikely in previous years, and it is testament to the improving quality of the UAE Pro League that a raucous throng of vocal locals supporting Al Ain would opt to show their purple passion rather than witness the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Javier Pastore - who between have commanded transfer fees exceeding £92 million (Dh418m) - in the flesh. However, delve deeper and the numbers still fail to stack up.

Wednesday night's match at Shabab was the league leaders versus second in the table. Domestic games do not come much bigger, and yet the attendance was only marginally larger than last season's average of 3,240.

Exhibition matches such as the Dubai Football Challenge have a dual purpose: to promote the city as a tourist destination and to provide the community with high-quality entertainment. Wednesday night's game ticked both boxes.

"Events such as these can only be good for the local football," said Massimiliano Allegri, the Italian coach of Milan. "This year not only AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain are here, but Juventus are here training, also, so it is good for football, and also the UAE in general."

Samar Narayen, a Milan fan from Delhi, flew into Dubai especially to watch his beloved Rossoneri, while Thiago Abrao and his father, Paulo, spent the final night of their vacation from Parana in south Brazil watching compatriots Robinho, Alexandre Pato, Thiago Silva, Nene and Marcos Ceara.

Andy Jackson, on leave from the Royal Navy, said he was attending the game because it was "big teams with big names", but added that had the two matches not clashed he would have also attended the Pro League tie along the road as well.

One spectator suggested a better idea would be to pair the games together as a means of showcasing the local league to football fans who are not familiar with it.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae