The UAE champions kick-off the second Club World Cup to be held in Abu Dhabi today against Papua New Guinea's Hekari United.
Al Wahda dream of Inter Milan
ABU DHABI// The flags are flying, the banners are up and the grass is mown for tonight's opening ceremony of the Fifa Club World Cup.
After a dazzling opening ceremony, the UAE champions, Al Wahda football club will take on Papua New Guinea's Hekari United tonight in the capital's Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
Over 11 days, Abu Dhabi will see some of the world's best players take to the pitch. By December 18, one of the seven teams will be crowned Club World Champions.
It is the second time the tournament has been held in Abu Dhabi. After last year's competition - when the FC Barcelona games were sold out but there were empty seats at every other game - Fifa officials told the local organisers that they needed to do more to get fans into the stadiums.
Having an Abu Dhabi team, rather than Dubai's Al Ahli, who competed last year, should help. "It adds to the local enthusiasm," said Chuck Blazer, a member of the Fifa executive committee.
With a bit of luck Al Wahda might stay in the tournament longer, too. Last year, Al Ahli were knocked out by New Zealand's Auckland City in the first round - and local interest dwindled for all but the Barcelona games.
Yesterday, the local organising committee met Fifa officials to explain the progress that had been made since last year. "It allowed us to put the final pieces of our preparations in place," said Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi, the president of the UAE Football Association.
Efforts to raise the profile of the event kicked off as long ago as September, with hundreds of children across the country taking part in football workshops.
The Football Village on the Corniche has drawn more than 200,000 fans since it opened. "It helped our aspiring young talent to hone their skills," he added.
The "village" is now set up outside the two stadiums where matches will be held - Al Jazira's home ground, the Mohammed bin Zayed stadium, and Zayed Sports City.
Also at the grounds, there will be live entertainment, fan shops and food stalls.
To cope with the hoped-for crowds, there will be strict traffic restrictions around the stadiums during the games. Vehicles without a car parking pass will not be allowed near the venues.
Instead, fans are being encouraged to use free "park and ride" services, as well as public bus and taxis. For the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium, the park and ride facilities are in Mushrif park. Zayed Stadium's park and ride will be based at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Abu Dhabi Police have promised they will crack down on dangerous driving for the duration of the tournament. Colonel Hussain Ahmed al Harthy, the head of traffic police, called on fans to stay inside their cars and not hang from the windows when celebrating a win.
He said they would face prosecution, as would anyone doing handbrake turns or skids.
Gates will open two hours prior to each match.
As Al Wahda are the local team, they must qualify against Hekari United for a place in the quarter finals against the Asian champions, South Korea's Seongnam Ilhwa FC, on December 11 at Zayed Sports City.
At the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium on December 10, the African champions, the Congolese club TP Mazembe, will face Pachuca from Mexico, the North American champions.
If Al Wahda come through two games they will meet the European champions Inter Milan at Zayed Sports City on December 14 in the first semi-final.
The following day, the South American champions, SC Internacional do Porto Alegre from Brazil - a squad brimming with international players - will face TP Mazembe or Pachuca at the same venue.
Tickets prices start from Dh20 for the first three matches, and Dh70 for the final.
No food or alcohol is allowed into the stadiums and neither are vuvuzelas, the buzzing trumpets that blighted this year's World Cup in South Africa. It follows a fatwa earlier this year that decreed the horns haram if they were louder than 100 decibels. Mr Blazer, said: "After sitting though many games with them, I am very happy they are not here."