It must be asked: ‘Why are Emirati fans not showing up for games in their own country?’
They were the powerful words uttered by a passionate man in hurt and frustration, a man who is usually very diplomatic, calm and reserved, whatever the circumstances. But when your own people let you down, emotions are hard to bottle up.
“There is no support from our own fans, so how will the players be motivated,” Mahdi Ali asked on Tuesday, after a 4-0 loss to Uzbekistan in Abu Dhabi. “The other day, the Australians had more support for them than us in the stadium. I wish not to play any games at home but outside the country. It is really disappointing.”
Mahdi Ali is the greatest manager the country has produced. He led the so-called “golden generation” group of players to a debut Olympics appearance in London 2012, won the 2013 Gulf Cup of Nations and qualified undefeated for the 2015 Asian Cup. He has nurtured many of the country’s best players since they were 15 or 16.
All he has asked from the country’s fans is to show up for international matches and support their team. A team who play the sport the country is madly in love with and, actually, the only sport Emiratis care about: Football!
I remember a scenario from 2011, when only 4,100 people – and it seemed like fewer – showed up in Al Ain to see a scoreless Olympic qualifier. Three months later, a day after Mahdi Ali said “everyone who loves his country” would appear at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, a crowd of 28,734 turned out for a 1-0 victory over Australia that put the UAE on the verge of London 2012.
Mahdi Ali’s words, after the defeat to Uzbekistan in a nearly empty stadium, raise many important questions, led by: why are Emirati fans not showing up for games in their own country?
Tickets are priced at Dh10; the stadiums are located in the heart of major cities. Why do so few fans support a team widely considered the best the country has produced?
Such a situation would be understandable if the UAE were a cricket country, but football is our most watched, most played and most followed sport.
It is unflattering both to fans as well as UAE football authorities that greater support has not been seen.
The Football Association is well-funded, but national team matches are poorly publicised and promoted.
The problems are not unsolvable, just unaddressed. First, you identify the challenges and then put all your energy into solving those challenges.
One of the most important opportunities UAE football could embrace is tapping into the giant expat community and market, people who sometimes feel unwelcome at national team matches. I have called on top officials to create an English-language TV-magazine show but, so far, the answer has always been: “It is in our plans and will happen soon.”
There is a lack of promotional activities in promoting the UAE national team’s games. Match days are released, kick-off times are noted, and the FA seems to believe their job is complete.
Female fans are rarely seen at stadiums and, most of the year, attending a match means sitting in extreme heat.
If it is too hot to attend games, why not use air-conditioning at stadiums? That might get Emirati fans out of coffee shops or their living rooms and to the matches.
If women do not attend games due to lack of proper protection or washrooms in the stadiums, then build washrooms and add extra security for women.
If fans believe parking lots are jammed, arrange a free shuttle service in and out of the stadium and keep the shuttles on standby at different spots in the city.
The challenges have been known for quite a while now, but those who can take action have not acted on solving those challenges aggressively, leaving the players who represent their country wondering why their compatriots give them such little support.
Disappointing results at the Gulf Cup of Nations, four weeks hence, and the Asian Cup, in Australia in January, could cost Mahdi Ali his job. The FA wants to win the Asian Cup, or to be in the semi-finals, at least.
Without a win in five matches, and only one goal in that stretch, this team, seemingly abandoned by their countrymen during a difficult period, is in no condition to be heading into the Gulf Cup next month.
The great Bill Shankly, Liverpool’s manager, once said: “If you can’t support us when we lose, don’t support us when we win.”
Mahdi Ali’s message was loud and clear: if Emiratis can’t support their team in their own country, then do not support the team at all.
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