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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 January 2019

Al Ain v Real Madrid: fans say 'nothing is impossible' now for UAE football

For many fans, the Garden City team's journey to the final shows 'nothing is impossible' for UAE football

Al Ain fans get set for a landmark moment in UAE sporting history. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Al Ain fans get set for a landmark moment in UAE sporting history. Chris Whiteoak / The National

From early afternoon they came. A trickle of Al Ain fans in the early afternoon had turned into a purple river by dusk as Garden City supporters from across the country descended on Abu Dhabi for one of the most important nights in the club’s storied history.

Some had purple scarves draped over their kandoras, others sporting baseball caps and jerseys, while one dedicated fan even brought a huge drum to galvanise support in what was a raucous Zayed Sports City stadium by kick-off.

“Today, it is not Al Ain against Real Madrid. It is one country against another country,” said Marwan Shayea, who was attending the Club World Cup final against the Spanish giants with his six-and-a-half year-old son, Khalifa.

“This is the first time we have reached the final so we have made history. All the UAE today support Al Ain and it is huge for UAE football.”

And it was hard to argue with that assessment. The events of Saturday will live long in the memory for all football supporters.

The sense of history and occasion was evident from early on Saturday with a heady atmosphere building at the stadium by 4pm - more than four ahead of the game getting underway.

Leading the charge were fans from River Plate, who turned the roads and approaches to Zayed Sports City into a mini El Monumental before their team beat Japan’s Kashima Antlers to claim third place. But despite losing to current Arabian Gulf champions Al Ain on penalties in Wednesday’s semi-finals, there was no sign of any ill-feeling between the Emirati and Argentine supporters.

Al Ain supporters were hoping not to have to paint on their smiles after the side's Club World Cup showdown with Spanish giants Real Madrid. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Al Ain supporters were hoping not to have to paint on their smiles after the side's Club World Cup showdown with Spanish giants Real Madrid. Chris Whiteoak / The National

They sang, danced and unfurled banners of their favourite players and both sets of fans posed for selfies, sang songs and one Emirati even showed an Argentine how to tie a ghutra.

“It is such a huge day for the UAE. We are having a big party,” said Aldar Maki, an Al Ain fan with a huge UAE flag draped around his shoulders who was posing for photographs with rival fans.

“We have taken every game as it came and have not thought too far ahead. Just being in the final has changed everything.”

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Read more:

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As the showpiece final drew near, the Al Ain support swelled and a Garden City army marched into the stadium. Abu Dhabi’s new mounted police unit kept an eye on things, traders did a brisk business selling Al Ain scarves for Dh25 a pop, while Real Madrid fans looked around for anyone with a spare ticket.

“It is not just a big day for Al Ain but for all the UAE,” said Abdirahman Omar, 35. “This can show the world that Gulf football is getting better. Al Ain getting to the final of the Club World Cup now shows what is possible for Emirati football. Nothing is impossible in Al Ain,” he said.

Standing beside him was Abdelhafiz Ali, who described himself as a hardcore Al Ain fan. “The fact we are in the final shows the West and the entire world how good we can be,” said Mr Ali, 32. “Our path to the final has surprised people. But it is a showcase to the world and now gives us a platform to build on. My blood is purple,” he said.

The UAE’s top football achievement has always been thought of as qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. But now the exploits of Al Ain, including their heroics against River Plate, have placed them in the pantheon of Emirati footballing greats.

“They won the Asian Champions League in 2003 – but to beat an Argentinian team is incredible,” said Ali Khaled, a football writer who directed Lights of Rome, a documentary about the UAE’s journey to the 1990 World Cup.

“No one gave them a chance. And at the end, I saw grown men crying.”

Mr Khaled said the hope now will be that Al Ain’s heroics could boost attendances at games here. “It really has shown Emirati football in a different light and brought it to a level we have not seen before.”

The tournament has also shone a spotlight on the historic venue. Zayed Sports City was completed in 1979, just a few years after the UAE was formed, and it was where the UAE team won their first Gulf Cup in 2007.

“Zayed Sports City is beloved by Emirati fans,” said Mr Khaled. “It means so much. All landmark moments for the national team happened there and now we have the biggest landmark for club football.”

Updated: December 22, 2018 10:02 PM

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