x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Sideshow adds to fun at big game

A whole array of activities made the already passionate rivalry between Abu Dhabi sides memorable, writes Gary Meenaghan.

A reported 14,190 fans braved the humidity to watch the much-hyped 'Abu Dhabi derby' at Al Jazira's Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium last night.
A reported 14,190 fans braved the humidity to watch the much-hyped 'Abu Dhabi derby' at Al Jazira's Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium last night.

ABU DHABI // The last time the mainstream English-language media showed any real interest in an "Abu Dhabi derby" was 54 weeks ago and the match took place on the south coast of England. Sulaiman al Fahim, the businessman born in the UAE capital, had acquired Portsmouth FC and was preparing to welcome Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed's free-spending Manchester City to Fratton Park in a Premier League match.

Little more than a year later and Sheikh Mansour is once again at the forefront of expanding interest in the beautiful game through the branding of an "Abu Dhabi Derby", but this time the match took place in the Emirates' capital and featured teams from the Pro League. Al Jazira, the former Gulf Club Cup champions owned by Sheikh Mansour, hosted city rivals Al Wahda last night with both clubs providing a positive advert for the local domestic championship.

The two clubs, located just a few kilometres apart in the capital, share a relatively fierce rivalry, with both sides winning their respective home games last season and in doing so proving that a strong support can, as the football expression goes, be the equivalent to an extra player. The defeat to Wahda was the only one suffered by Jazira in 22 games last season, but it (along with a handful of draws) was enough to make Wahda league champions, securing their fourth league trophy.

Of more interest outside the two clubs' adjoining fan bases: Wahda earned a place in both the AFC Champions League and the Fifa Club World Cup. Wahda's domestic success denied Jazira the joy of representing their country at December's Fifa-affiliated event, which will feature the champions of each continent, including Inter Milan, and take place, in part, at the Black Spiders' home ground, the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.

Last year's Club World Cup opener between Al Ahli and Auckland City was criticised by Mohammed al Rumaithi, the UAE Football Association president, for its poor attendance, and fewer than 500 spectators turned out to watch last week's international friendly between the UAE and Kuwait. With the Jazira-Wahda derby traditionally attracting sizeable crowds, yesterday's match was thus viewed by local officials as an ideal opportunity to try to attract more expatriate spectators to the stands. With English-language adverts on the radio and pre-match murmurings coming out of the Jazira camp that they expected in excess of 10,000, expectations were high and as kick-off approached khandoura-clad fans continued to appear. By the time the official attendance was announced midway through the second half, 14,190 had braved the humidity to watch the action both on and off the pitch.

As well as promoting the duel as a passionate rivalry, Jazira have also this season been organising a number of initiatives that they hope will bring families as well as football fans to the ground. Before kick off, a roving camera randomly selected four fans before an Emirati master of ceremonies provided them with tickets to a special raised platform in the middle of the grand stand that offered the quartet enviable viewing and exclusive waitress service.

At half time, as Red Bull Streetstyle experts performed a series of tricks on the sidelines, a penalty shoot-out competition was played out on the pitch. Selected spectators from as far apart as South Africa and Germany were given the chance to win Dh25,000 (US$6,800) if they could score a goal into an empty net from the centre spot. All five participants failed, meaning when the competition returns at Jazira's next home game, the prize purse will have been increased to Dh50,000.

Abdullah al Hammadi, however, was more fortunate. The Emirati was randomly selected from a raffle to win an all-expenses-paid trip to a Manchester City game of his choice. Samuel Amiller, who won the inaugural penalty shoot-out in Jazira's opening game of the season against Al Nasr, was also presented last night with a boarding pass to England for a City league game. Amiller said it was his first experience at a Jazira game and that he would be accompanied on the trip by his wife. With Portsmouth and al Fahim both having departed the Premier League, it will likely not be to an Abu Dhabi Derby abroad.

@Email:gmeenaghan@thenational.ae