x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The President's Cup final is a game that unites a country

Clubs, companies, fans and Royalty go that extra step to join in the President's Cup final festivities.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, second left, presented the winning Al Jazira club captain Saleh Obaid, second right, an Emirati, with the President's Cup at Zayed Sports City last year.
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, second left, presented the winning Al Jazira club captain Saleh Obaid, second right, an Emirati, with the President's Cup at Zayed Sports City last year.

In 2009, Al Hilal Bank commissioned eight Mercedes sedans and had them driven all over the country to distribute 15,000 tickets to the President's Cup final between Al Ain and Al Shabab.

In 2010, the Emirates club from Ras Al Khaimah arranged for 300 buses to carry 15,000 fans to their surprise President's Cup final with Shabab in Abu Dhabi. The long caravan was a happy one during the 215-kilometre drive back; Emirates shocked Shabab 3-1 in a game seen by 33,000.

Last year, Al Jazira provided scores of buses, as well as a meal for each fan, to take their supporters the short distance to Zayed Sports City for the final with their capital rivals Al Wahda. The attendance was 37,408 as Jazira won the cup for the first time.

Acute powers of observation are not required to grasp that, among Emiratis, the President's Cup is the biggest one-day sports event in the country.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and Dubai World Cup both receive international attention, and in domestic football the league title may be the most significant silverware a club can win. But the President's Cup provides the sort of one-day drama that prompts local clubs, companies and fans to take the extra step.

Not that it is a hard sell. The President's Cup final is perhaps the most thoroughly Emirati sports event in the world. Everyone who is anyone, among the nation's citizens, is likely to attend. Including the President himself.

"In the early years, the 1970s and 80s, Sheikh Zayed could be there, and even to shake his hand was a great honour," said Kefah Al Kaabi, a radio and television analyst and former UAE footballer. "We have a very good thing in our country that all our sheikhs love sports, and many of them play sports."

Emirati coaches and staff are always eager to climb into the stands and accept the President's Cup, to meet the nation's leaders and kiss the edges of their robes.

When asked yesterday why the President's Cup is so significant to Emiratis, Fawaz Awana, the Baniyas midfielder, said: "It is special for everyone in the UAE because it is under the name of Sheikh Khalifa" bin Zayed, President of the UAE. To an expatriate watching, on television or at the stadium, the interaction between sheikhs and Emiratis seems very personal and significant.

"Our sheikhs are very simple," Al Kaabi said. "A lot of people think it is hard to get to know them, but their homes are open and when you talk to them you find out how close they are to the people."

Sheikh Khalifa, he said, watches most matches played by national teams and often surprises players by greeting them by name when he meets them.

Last year, it was Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, who awarded the trophy, and every Emirati on the Jazira side seemed as happy to meet Sheikh Mohammed as to win the cup. The President's Cup, as much or more than any social event, seems to reinforce bonds between rulers and citizens and is nearly as old as the country. The UAE was formed in 1971; the President's Cup was first staged in 1974.

"The atmosphere at the cup final shows the unity of the country, and how a country can be united in sport," Al Kaabi said. "It brings down all barriers between us."

In a year when the Olympic football team's qualification for London 2012, as well as Al Ain's performance in the league, have dominated the headlines, the President's Cup has come into focus over the past few days.

Jazira are offering to decorate, at no charge, the vehicles of fans. They also are promising to award a new car and a Dh10,000 prize, as well as other gifts, in draws at the stadium tonight.

Baniyas fans have a chance to experience a President's Cup final for the first time in two decades; it is widely expected that neighbourhoods around the club, located outside the capital, will empty as fans head to Zayed Sports City.

Football is not the only sport that resonates with Emiratis, but Al Kaabi said it has a special place. And if the President's Cup is the biggest single day on the football calendar … well, this is as big as it gets for Emiratis.

He said: "We love horses and camels, but football is No 1. I think this game will show that again."

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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