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Supporters must make home advantage count for UAE

Large crowds to see international sports' big name stars is all well and good, but what about when the home nation plays, asks Paul Radley
The UAE's Saqib Ali celebrates hitting a six at the end of their innings in the ACC Trophy Final against Nepal
The UAE's Saqib Ali celebrates hitting a six at the end of their innings in the ACC Trophy Final against Nepal

There are a lot of accepted truisms about watching sport in the cultural melting pot that is the UAE. The Emiratis have their football, the south Asians have their cricket, a few western expatriates have their golf and rugby, and never the twain shall meet. Right?

For the major international events, it is broadly true. And most of the time it is a fairly successful business model. The annual Dubai Rugby Sevens weekend, for instance, attracts around 100,000 people. Almost exclusively westerners, but the tickets sell, so whatever.

And if the powers-that-be are ever able to induce another fixture between the national cricket teams of India and Pakistan here, there is not a venue big enough in this country to accommodate everyone who would want to go and watch. Not many neutrals, mind.

All of which is all well and good when the recognisable stars of international sport arrive.

But what about when the UAE play? Home advantage seldom equates to home support in any mainstream sport in this country.

Take the national football team. That wave of enthusiasm they were supposedly riding following the Olympic team's uplifting displays at London 2012 has already turned into a placid millpond on the evidence of the silent stands at the two internationals last week.

Even with the PR-savvy Mahdi Ali newly-installed as coach.

Rugby? That's a laugh. When the UAE played their highest stakes match of the year against Kazakhstan in Dubai in May, you could have thrown a bedsheet over all the spectators who had come to watch. And a single bed, at that.

The UAE's national cricketers routinely play in front of precisely nil spectators. Unless, of course, they are playing against the likes of Afghanistan or, as they did more recently, Nepal, the new arrivistes of Asian cricket.

In which case stacks of people come to watch. Not one of them supporting the nation in which they are living, of course, but at least it creates an atmosphere.

Two and a half years ago, the UAE's cricket team were within touching distance of a place in the World Twenty20.

It would have been the country's finest achievement in the sport for at least 14 years, if not ever.

Yet when push came to shove, in the decisive qualifying match against Afghanistan, they found everyone inside their home venue, the Dubai International Cricket Stadium - which held a crowd of around 4,000 at the time - against them.

When they subsequently lost, there was a good-natured pitch invasion to celebrate. Thanks for letting us in, but we won, so nerr, they might as well have been saying.

Earlier this month, the UAE's vastly more experienced and, in all likelihood, more talented team tied the final of the ACC Trophy against Nepal at Sharjah Cricket Stadium.

In general terms, the home side should have won the game easily, but their guests were willed to a share of Asia's most prestigious trophy within this strata of the game by thousands of vocal Nepalese expats.

Even the UAE players enjoyed the atmosphere they created. At one point, the ever-feisty Saqib Ali, who scored a hundred in the final, was pelted with bottles by the massed ranks of Nepal supporters for the crime of taking a vital catch and turning to tell the crowd to shush.

When he revisited the incident afterwards, he smiled more broadly than he did when talking about his match-turning century. "I enjoyed it," he said happily.

All the UAE's players were buzzing because people had come to watch.

A bit of an atmosphere and a bit of home support at a UAE match: how good would that be? Maybe one day.

 

pradley@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE and Paul Radley @paulradley

Updated: October 21, 2012 04:00 AM

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