x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

UAE football stadiums get green light ahead of U17 World Cup

World governing body raise some concerns ahead of the October 17-November 8 event, yet they insist any problems will be eradicated in time for the tournament, reports John McAuley.

For the most part, Fifa deputy director of competitions Inaki Alvarez liked what he saw. Jake Badger for The National
For the most part, Fifa deputy director of competitions Inaki Alvarez liked what he saw. Jake Badger for The National

DUBAI // Fifa remains optimistic the upcoming Under 17 World Cup will be an operational success, however the world governing body warned there is still work to be done before the tournament kicks off this month.

Fifa’s inspection team on Tuesday completed its final assessment of the six venues chosen to stage the three-week event, with Dubai’s Rashid Stadium the last of the sites examined.

Their visit marked the culmination of months of endeavour by the Local Organising Committee (LOC) and the respective football clubs in ensuring the stadia meet the competition’s strict requirements. With only eight days until hosts UAE open the tournament against Honduras, Fifa said it was not completely satisfied.

“For the most part it’s been positive,” said Inaki Alvarez, Fifa’s deputy director of competitions. “But there are certain areas we’re concerned about, so we need to maintain a sense of urgency until the final days. This is where our focus is now.”

Alvarez said all six host venues – Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, Dubai’s Rashid Stadium, the Sheikh Khalifa International Stadium in Al Ain, Sharjah Stadium and one each in Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah – require some finessing, from the preparation of training pitches to the installation of IT infrastructure. He did concede, though, that these are not typically in place until the days leading up to a tournament.

With 24 international teams competing across 52 matches, Fifa will provide a 200-strong team to work alongside the LOC. Alvarez, who has 10 years experience in the management of various Fifa events, praised the extensive exertions of the local organisers, saying he noticed a tangible realisation among the committee that they must continue to concentrate on delivering an effective tournament.

“The LOC have been very cooperative, very helpful at the highest levels, so we’re working together now,” Alvarez said. “We’re completely engaged. It’s no longer ‘Fifa’ or ‘LOC’, it’s ‘us’.

“There’s good communication. They’re very responsive. The UAE’s very experienced – it’s hosted many World Cups already – so they know what to do and what needs to be done.”

Alvarez expects each site to be “100 per cent complete” within the next three to five days, in preparation for the arrival of Fifa’s delegates later this week. The teams arrive from Sunday.

When asked if he is fully confident any problems would be eradicated in time for the tournament, Alvarez said: “They must be. The things we’re concerned about won’t affect us operationally. The teams will come, the referees will come, there’ll be winners and losers and so on. I’m not worried about that.

“Of course, whenever you apply something new there’s risk and we accept that risk. But that doesn’t mean you don’t do it. You accept the risk, try to mitigate the possible consequences or the things that can happen to prevent you from achieving your goals, and you approach it in a professional way.

“What’s being done is as best as can be done. You always wish you have more time or more money, which is normal, but I firmly believe what can be done is being done.”

‘Everyone’s out spreading the word’

The organisers are also confident they will be able to attract fans to the tournament.

The LOC is working with Fifa to ensure the October 17-November 8 event is well supported, with the world governing body implementing a “multidimensional” approach to connect with football fans across the Emirates via traditional media platforms and social media.

Various on-site activities, such as fan zones and a trophy tour, have also raised awareness.

Fifa said it is integral to create an understanding among fans of what the U17 experience entails, especially as the competition showcases players who are not yet household names.

“We’re looking for people who see a real value in coming to the stadiums,” said Inaki Alvarez, Fifa’s director of competitions. “It’s a celebration of family, youth football and the future legends on display. We want people in the stadium who really want to be there.

“Everyone’s out spreading the word; everybody’s involved from the highest level. We’re all cognisant that we have to do our part. Hopefully the people respond.”

While specific ticket sales were not disclosed, organisers said the level of response has been encouraging, with Abu Dhabi – the UAE national team’s base – the most popular host city.

“There are still a lot of question marks,” Alvarez said. “I’ve been out as much as I can, in every city mixing with groups of young people as best I can, shaking hands and trying to communicate and share the message: ‘you’re an important part of this process and we hope you come.’”

jmcauley@thenational.ae