x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Season starts with a fanfare

According to the Pro League's chief executive, Romy Gai, the experiment of staging the Super Cup at a cricket ground was a resounding success.

Al Ahli's Ali Hussain, left, sends Al Ain captain Jorge Valdivia flying on Wednesday night.
Al Ahli's Ali Hussain, left, sends Al Ain captain Jorge Valdivia flying on Wednesday night.

DUBAI // The attendance at the curtain-raiser to the UAE Football League season was still some way short of that which greeted the inauguration of the Sports City ground, in a one-day international cricket match between Pakistan and Australia earlier in the year.

However, it was certainly a step in the right direction for the local game. And according to the Pro League's chief executive, Romy Gai, the experiment of staging the Super Cup at a cricket ground was a resounding success. More than 17,000 supporters turned out to see Al Ain, the President's Cup holders, carry off the trophy after a penalty shoot-out triumph over the league champions, Al Ahli, at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium on Wednesday night.

It helped that the UAE's best supported club, Al Ain, brought more than 20 bus loads of fans to the ground. But the vociferous "Purple Brigade" were not the only ones to thank for the atmosphere generated under the ring of fire floodlights. The organisers had spent Dh300,000 promoting the game in English as well as Arabic, as part of their ongoing attempt to bring a new audience to UAE football. "Having 17,023, all paying for a ticket, is a very good result," said Gai. "It shows that it can be done."

The marketing drive has focused on getting more expatriates to attend, and there were signs of promise in the stands on Wednesday. Soren Jorgensen, a Dane who works in Sharjah, has lived in the UAE for nearly seven years yet was taking in his first game between local sides. "I have seen a lot of football, and I was say this is the equivalent of the lower level teams in the top division in Denmark," he said.

"I didn't even know the match was going on, but my friend won tickets. I have seen a lot of sports here, but not football. Tennis and golf when the major tournaments come here. "I have Showtime and follow all the Premier league matches, and stream some of the national team matches when I can. I do my own management team games on the computer, but I've never had a UAE team. The only one I recognise is the German coach [Al Ain's Winfried Schaefer].

"If they can attract some more famous players, perhaps it would bring more people." Abdullah Fattah, 26, an Emirati Ahli supporter, believes Pro League clubs battle other problems when trying to attract crowds. "People might not come because the games are also free on television," said Fattah. "At home they have air conditioning, and everything is ready for them. They might think, 'Why should I go there? There may be fighting, or there may be problems'.

"Here they don't apply any replays on the TV, but if you watch it in the house, they will replay each incident four or five times for you." A cricket ground is not the most natural setting for a football match and Schaefer, the charismatic coach of Al Ain, was not impressed. "It is a very beautiful stadium, but it is not a football ground," he said, after his side claimed the Super Cup with a tense, penalty shoot-out triumph over the Pro League champions, Al Ahli.

"In the 30-metre area in the centre where cricket is played, the pitch is so hard. "I was very happy that none of our players were injured. Cricket players should come and throw their ball around a football stadium. They would find that the field is not so hard." Schaefer may have had his doubts, but Gai said: "Being a cricket pitch, I think to prepare it to be a football field in three or four weeks was really not a bad effort.

"It was a great success, and the perfect way for us to start our second season giving us the chance to proceed in a proper way." pradley@thenational.ae