x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A desert rivalry in far-off England

When Sulaiman al Fahim finalised his purchase of Portsmouth Football Club last week, Pompey fans in the UAE entered a special relationship with local supporters of Manchester City: both the Premier League teams are now in Emirati ownership.

Portsmouth's Niko Kranjcar, right, grapples with Manchester City's Micah Richards during yesterday's clash.
Portsmouth's Niko Kranjcar, right, grapples with Manchester City's Micah Richards during yesterday's clash.

It is the football world's newest, and most unlikely, of derby games. When Manchester City and Portsmouth took to the field at the latter's Fratton Park ground yesterday afternoon, the anticipation was just as high far away in the UAE. The two Emirati-owned clubs may be 197 miles, and several league places, apart, but there was no doubt about it - this was a UAE derby match just as much as the contests between Al Jazira and Al Wahda. In the lead-up to the game, members of the press had dubbed the match the "Abu Dhabi derby". City finished 1-0 winners, with a goal from their Togolese forward, Emmanuel Adebayor. Manchester City, bought by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed in September last year, squared up to the rival team, nicknamed Pompey, whose protracted purchase by the property tycoon Sulaiman al Fahim was concluded on Wednesday. The two teams in yesterday's game had little in common except for Emirati owners and a place in the Premier League. While City, reported to be the wealthiest club in the world, has spent the past weeks strengthening its squad, Portsmouth has been forced to sell top names such as Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe, just to keep the club afloat. Mr al Fahim - who watched the game in a white Portsmouth away shirt bearing the number 77, the year of his birth - had been part of Sheikh Mansour's business team, whose takeover of City was announced a year ago tomorrow. Helen Latham, 28, from Manchester, who has been a lifelong City supporter, said she had been looking forward to the clash. "Both teams are owned by people in the United Arab Emirates, but apart from that, we don't really have a lot in common. "It's a bit like a desert derby; it's just that both sides are playing away." With the English Premier League season only weeks old, the two teams have enjoyed contrary fortunes. While City have steamrollered their way through victories over Blackburn Rovers and Wolverhampton Wanderers, Portsmouth have suffered their worst ever start to a season, with yesterday's defeat their fourth in a row. More than 4,800 miles from Fratton Park, around 35 Manchester City fans, some in their team's light blue strip, packed into the Players' Lounge in the Country Club Hotel in Bur Dubai to watch the match. Cheers and whistles echoed around the room as a mixture of British expatriates, local fans and international supporters crowded in. City's international following has swollen since last year's purchase of the club by Sheikh Mansour. Portsmouth's international profile is lower - no Pompey fans were spotted watching the match in the Players' Lounge. Mark Lynch, 31, who is originally from Sale in Greater Manchester and now lives in Dubai, where he is the chairman of the Manchester City Supporters' Club, said Portsmouth would have a long battle to recover the ground lost during the purchase hiatus. "Portsmouth are going to struggle this season, because they have got rid of so many of their danger players. "More than anyone, they needed to strengthen their squad, but, instead, they have gone the opposite way." Ahead of the game, Portsmouth fans remained upbeat about their team's chances of success, but, taking form into consideration, City's victory appeared a certainty from the outset. Karl Jeffs, 34, a photographer who lives in Dubai and is originally from Portsmouth, said he knew his hometown team would struggle against their richer rivals. "We have lost so many key players, especially in the last few weeks. Everyone has been worried, because they didn't know whether the purchase was actually going to happen. "That is bound to affect things like the team's performance. "I think it is a good thing that the takeover has finally gone through. The situation was a bit dire beforehand. "Nobody knows if [Mr al Fahim] has enough money to give the club the support it needs. "It's not in the same situation as Manchester City, where you have a rich guy throwing money at the club. "Al Fahim is much more secretive about his financial situation." Yesterday's encounter was Portsmouth's first match since the club's protracted purchase by the business tycoon was concluded last week. Portsmouth supporters welcomed the news that the deal had been completed but remained disappointed that the club had lost so many players while the negotiations were being completed. One of the supporters, Lizzy Millar, a project manager for a Dubai publishing firm who has lived in the Emirates for five years, said she was looking forward to the showdown between the two UAE-owned teams. "It is good news for the club," she said. "Al Fahim said he has been watching English Premier League football all of his life, which is a good sign he has bought the club for all the right reasons. "We need him to start spending and buy up some new talent before the transfer window closes next week." Barry Thompson, 48, who works as a paramedic in Portsmouth and has been a supporter most of his life, added that he believed the team would not know until later in the season how much money Mr al Fahim was prepared to spend. "The buy-up was completed so late - only a few days before the transfer window is going to close - so he hasn't left much time to buy new players. "Come January, we will be in a much better position to know what we need in terms of players, and then we will see how much [Mr al Fahim] has got to spend." Tyrone Evans, a 31-year-old South African who lives in Dubai and supports City, said he felt that Sheikh Mansour's purchase had raised the club's profile and expected that the same would now be true for Portsmouth. "Its exciting for local fans that the club has Middle East influence. I was surprised to find a City supporters' club. "The UAE purchase of the club has created a buzz, and there are more local supporters. "With UAE investment, Portsmouth can follow our lead and become a more established club." James Harris, a Portsmouth fan who has been following the club for more than 30 years, said: "There's still a lot of uncertainty. I was more excited when I first heard about this takeover a few months ago. "We thought we were going to be the next Man City and spending lots of money, but it hasn't worked out like that. "We wish it had, when you look at what the Abu Dhabi takeover has done for City. "The important thing is not to be relegated. If al Fahim keeps us in the league this season, we can build on that." chamilton@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Tim Brooks and Alam Khan