x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Capital vision of perfect stadium

Building a world-class facility for the nation will take more than mere money. Sporting officials say it is essential to find the right model so that it can become 'the talk of all nations'.

ABU DHABI // Close to 65,000 fans pack the stands. Their roars echo through an artificial breeze that creates a temperate zone amid a desert of heat. The World Cup championship is about to be decided, right here, in Abu Dhabi.

For now, of course, that scenario is just a dream. Mubadala Development, an investment arm of the Government, wants to build it into a reality by constructing a new stadium in the Capital District. But it will take more than cash to carve out the emirate's equivalent of Camp Nou, home of Barcelona football club. "It can have a historical significance for the city. Just like Maracana Stadium in Brazil, and Wembley in London," said Yousuf Mohammed Abdullah, the general secretary of the UAE Football Association. "Stadiums are tied to the city, particularly when they are models for others. They become the talk of all nations."

Picking out a model for Abu Dhabi's new stadium, intended as the future home of the national football side and a venue for major events, will be crucial. A debate is under way as to whether to adopt the multi-use model of Dubai Sports City, which leaves room for an athletics track encircling the pitch, or the Old Trafford model, which ensures fans are up close, immersed in the action. Khaled Awadh, the deputy chief executive of Abu Dhabi's Al Wahda Club, is unequivocal. "The fans have to be close up," he said. "There are places that can be used for the other sports.

"We should specialise. In our stadium in Al Wahda, we put grass over the track so the fans can be closer to the pitch. The closer they are, the better." But having to pick between the two models was not necessarily an either/or choice, said Donal Kilalea, the Dubai-based president of sports marketing at Fortune Promoseven, an advertising agency. Although there was a general move towards building multi-use stadiums because of the high cost of arenas in general, solutions such as foldable stands and artificial grass could be used to accommodate multiple sports.

The announcement that the stadium would have a retractable roof is also crucial to the venue. That "means it can be good for events in the summer," Mr Kilalea said. "It's difficult to actually have a 12-month sports season here." Mr Abdullah agreed that the presence of the stadium would boost the country's profile when it comes to hosting major sporting events. The UAE is hosting next month's Fifa Club World Cup and has aspirations to host the Youth World Cup in 2013, but the ambitions do not stop there. In the works is a possible Olympic bid. And the country also hopes to have the facilities to hold major Asian tournaments and high-profile fixtures.

"And we host big teams as well. Many teams see the UAE as a good place to go to camp and train," Mr Abdullah said. "Every year there's something new." The UAE has few major sports grounds. Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium is being expanded to seat 42,000 fans, while Zayed Sports City can host 50,000. Dubai Sports City's stadium is supposed to have a capacity of 60,000. Mr Abdullah urged authorities to hire experienced consultants when designing the stadium and to learn from the mistakes and successes of the country's other sports ventures.

"We have older stadiums, and definitely there are some positives and negatives," he said. One of the negatives is the lack of a family-friendly atmosphere that has been plaguing the country's arenas, Mr Abdullah said. "Before, there was no interest in the social aspect and family friendliness. We need services that improve the situation for families." Electronic gates for entry were also needed, as well as amenities and VIP cabins that can allow some form of gold-class treatment, Mr Awadh said.

"Some stadiums practically have malls inside them," he said. Architects had to ensure the layout allowed for proper air flow, conditioning and ventilation, he added. "The design must reflect our traditions," Mr Awadh said. He noted that Wembley and Zayed Sports City are made special by their histories. "We need a modern stadium with technology, but that also has a touch that makes it a waypoint in the UAE."

Toby Southgate, the managing director of Brand Union Middle East, a branding agency, is not worried. "The old Wembley Stadium had a lot of heritage attached to it," he said, "so when they decided to rebuild it there was so much scepticism. But it was delivered at such a high level that people could not help but be proud of it. I have no doubt that Abu Dhabi would do it at such a high level that the people of Abu Dhabi would rally around it."

It was therefore crucial for those building the stadium to involve clubs and the general population in the design, he said. Whatever the costs, Mr Abdullah was convinced the authorities would not let a project with such potential fall by the wayside. "The country has huge capabilities," he said, "and we always have unlimited support from the Government of the UAE, which is a strong supporter of professional sports."

kshaheen@thenational.ae