x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

UAE fans must turn up at the turnstiles with expatriates

If you want to say that you saw the next Messi, you know where you have to be when U17 World Cup comes to town.

The Under 17 World Cup will be held in six cities in the UAE in two weeks and will offer a glimpse of the next generation’s stars. Satish Kumar / The National
The Under 17 World Cup will be held in six cities in the UAE in two weeks and will offer a glimpse of the next generation’s stars. Satish Kumar / The National

In his book Football in Sun and Shadow, the Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, tells a touching story of fellow countryman Paco Espinola, himself an author too.

Unlike Galeano, Espinola was no lover of football. Or so he thought. One day in the summer of 1960, he accidentally came across a radio commentary of a derby between Montevideo’s bitterest rivals, Penarol and Nacional.

Penarol were thrashed 4-0. By that evening, an inexplicable sense of melancholy had descended on Espinola. He was at loss to explain why.

Was it the general sadness that permeates everyday life? Perhaps there was more to it?

Dining alone, it finally dawned on him. He was a Penarol, and football, fan. He just “hadn’t known it” before.

Not even Espinola himself knew what had triggered his latent devotion to Penarol. Perhaps it was the commentator’s screams, or the sound of the crowd. Or maybe empathy for a battered loser.

Football can do that to you sometimes.

Every World Cup, even the biggest of cynics will usually catch the bug. But not all World Cups are an equal sell.

With exactly two weeks to go before the Fifa Under 17 World Cup kicks off in Abu Dhabi, Fifa and the Local Organising Committee (LOC) will be hoping that there is still enough time for casual fans to discover that they too love football enough to make this tournament a success.

The stadiums across the country are ready; the teams aching to get started. They have built it, will the fans come?

Certainly in the last month the LOC has done its best to raise the profile of what will be the UAE’s fifth Fifa-sanctioned tournament.

Over the last week, the U17 trophy has been making its way around the six host cities, giving football fans a glimpse of what it is all about, attempting to drum up interest in the event, and ticket sales.

This week too, the LOC kicked off an awareness campaign to take the World Cup celebrations to 21 local schools across the Emirates.

The initiative is aimed at giving 10,000 children opportunities to win prizes and interact with the teams and players over the next four weeks. The trophy tour and school initiatives are reminders of just how accessible this tournament will be. Almost every resident of the host cities will invariably be no more than a 30-minute drive from one of the six stadiums.

It is no exaggeration to say the success of the tournament depends on fans snapping up those tickets.

In Mexico two years ago, the average attendance was 19,000. Over 98,000 fans filled the Aztec Stadium to watch Mexico’s youngsters beat Uruguay 2-0 and clinch the title.

The LOC would be happy with a quarter of that average. For even that to happen, the local communities in the six cities must do their part. Starting with support for the home team.

But both Badr Ahmad Al Hammadi, the U17 team manager, and senior national coach Mahdi Ali have been at liberty to point out the importance of watching the other games in the tournament that do not involve the UAE.

Emirati fans cannot alone be expected to fill the stadiums by themselves. The expatriate population have a big part to play, too.

It will not be easy. Youth tournaments, for obvious reasons, suffer from a lack of star attractions. They are, however, conveyor belts for emerging talent.

The 2010 World Cup final in South Africa was settled by a long ball from Fernando Torres, a pass from Cesc Fabregas, and a finish from Andres Iniesta. All stars of previous junior World Cup tournaments.

These competitions offer supporters a chance to get ahead of the crowd. Imagine the scene. It is the 2018 World Cup final, hosts Russia are taking on mighty Brazil in Moscow.

Who would not want the kudos of being able to say “I remember him from Abu Dhabi five years ago”, or “he really caught my eye in Sharjah”, football fans being the know-it-alls that they are.

In Abu Dhabi, UAE v Brazil at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium on October 20 is the big one. In Dubai, where Argentina will play there group matches, fans can indulge in the ever-popular past-time of spotting the next Maradona/Messi/Aguero.

Playing football in an empty stadium is, Galeano said at the start of his book, like dancing without music.

Let us hope the tournament is full of noise. The next generation of footballing stars deserve our support.

Drag your friends along too. They probably love football, even if they do not know it yet.