x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Eager fans snap up new Man City shirt as victories fuel enthusiasm

Eventual challenge to United's pre-eminence begins to look realistic as team starts Premier League season with three victories.

DUBAI // Three wins in their team's first three English Premier League games of the season have stoked the expectations of the growing legion of fans in the UAE who have adopted Manchester City as their "local" club. Their hopes are high that they can leave mid-table mediocrity behind and look forward to a future of success and silverware.

With UAE owners who have bankrolled more than Dh700 million (US$190m) in signings over the summer they even believe they can steal the glory from Manchester United. The Emirati purchase of the club has brought new fans to football and the team, such as Guarang Shah, 35, a resident of Dubai for 30 years, who believes that given time, Manchester City will be viewed as the local club and that the colour of the season will be the light blue of City rather than the red of United.

"Loyalty to Abu Dhabi will see fans switch allegiance from clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea to Manchester City. The new team have started very well and if they keep winning you will see more and more local fans wearing the team shirt. It won't be long before it is adopted as the local team." Traditionally, the most popular English teams in the UAE have been Manchester United and Chelsea, but with local owners and a star-studded squad, City is hot on their heels in the race to sell shirts and expand the local fan base.

Mark Lynch, chairman of the UAE Manchester City supporters' club, said it was an exciting time and fans have responded by snapping up the latest shirt. "I have lived in the UAE for three years and I have never seen a Manchester City shirt for sale here. The focus has always been on the major European superpowers like Manchester United, Chelsea, AC Milan and Barcelona. Now we have joined that elite and our shirts can be bought across the country."

Umbro, manufacturer of the City kit, confirmed that demand for the jerseys had been greater than expected. But success brings imitation, and Umbro and Manchester City now face the same problem as their rivals in the illegal sale of fake team shirts. Since the launch of the new shirt on July 18 counterfeit jerseys have been for sale in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai for less than Dh50, a fraction of the Dh330 for the genuine article. Umbro said it was working closely with the authorities to fight the illegal trade.

Manchester United, the dominant team in England for the past decade, is an international and highly profitable brand. It has identified Japan, the US and China as emerging markets and has held pre-season tours there to increase the club's profile. With the opening of the Manchester United Soccer School in Dubai in 2005 the Gulf has become one of the fastest-expanding and most lucrative markets in the world.

Chelsea ran a seasonal football school in Abu Dhabi last year. Arsenal has now joined the race and will open its school, based at the Dubai Sevens complex, in early November. Unsurprisingly, next to open a UAE-based football school will be Manchester City. Since the takeover of City last year, under the chairmanship of Khaldoon al Mubarak, the club's UAE owners have worked hard to raise their global profile and challenge their more established rivals, not only on the pitch but off it.

This May, Etihad Airways signed a three-year sponsorship deal with the club, the most lucrative in the history of the Premier League. However, a cautionary note was sounded by Siegfried Wai, 18, a student from Hong Kong, who argued that the club's lack of history and pedigree could hinder expansion of the fan base into Asia. "Fans want to follow a club with a strong history and crowded trophy cabinet," he said. "That is why the most popular clubs in Asia are Manchester United and Liverpool. People have loyalty to a club and won't change allegiance just because a new team has more money. Manchester City assume that money will buy them short-term success but it may take them longer than they expect to be regarded as a top club."

tbrooks@thenational.ae