x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Football fans ready to have a World Cup ball, despite the UAE not qualifying

Every four years, thousands of football fans in the region adopt one of the world's football superpowers, such as Brazil, Argentina, Italy or Germany.

Argentina's Diego Maradona holds up the World Cup Trophy after his side defeated West Germany in the 1986 World Cup final.
Argentina's Diego Maradona holds up the World Cup Trophy after his side defeated West Germany in the 1986 World Cup final.

A young Emirati having a meal at a fast-food restaurant suddenly launches into an impassioned speech about the German football team - in German. The new commercial from McDonald's about next month's football World Cup tournament is clever, funny and has more than a grain of truth to it. Every four years, thousands of football fans in the region adopt one of the world's football superpowers, such as Brazil, Argentina, Italy or Germany, as their team of choice during the event.

While this irritates Arabs and expatriates alike, that does not stop fans keen to distinguish themselves from what they see as the majority of bandwagon-jumpers. Like many football fans in the Emirates, Faris Abdulrazzaq is a Brazil supporter. Unlike most, he has already supported his beloved side through three World Cup campaigns, and will once again follow them in South Africa this summer. "I first became aware of Brazil at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina," he said. "My father looked devastated one day and when I asked him why, he said because Brazil had been knocked out.

"I was only seven at the time and didn't grasp the significance of Brazilian football, but a few years later I watched a video called Giants of Brazil and just fell in love with their magical team, which had won the 1970 World Cup." The 39-year-old Iraqi, who counts Careca and Ronaldo as his favourite players, has gone so far as to attend World Cups in the US in 1994, France in 1998 and Germany in 2006 to cheer on his adopted favourites.

"I always make sure that I sit with Brazilian fans whenever possible," Mr Abdulrazzaq said. "You get the best atmosphere and after the matches get to celebrate with them. But I also remember the misery of losing the '98 final against France. Everyone was in tears and so was I." His favourite memory might be from the 2002 World Cup, which he did not attend. "I was living in Cairo and a Brazilian friend contacted his country's ambassador in Egypt and told him about my obsession with Brazil," he said. "A few days later I got an invitation as an honorary guest to watch the final against Germany at the Brazilian Embassy. While I couldn't make it to for the match, I did attend the post-match victory celebrations there. It was fantastic that they thought of me as one of their own. This year, I'm hoping Kaka leads them to victory, but Spain and Argentina could prove tough to beat."

Argentina is the adopted passion of Mohamad Merhi. His love affair with the blue and white started at the age of seven as the incomparable Diego Maradona devastated one defence after another at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. "For me, it all started with Maradona," he said. "I remember watching the winning goal in the final against West Germany with my brothers. As I grew older, I fell in love with Argentina's possession football. I was heart-broken when Argentina lost the [1990 World Cup] final to Germany. Andreas Brehme's winning penalty should never have been given."

As it turns out, that pain has been repeated for Argentina fans every four years since. For Brehme in 1990, read Gheorghe Hagi of Romania in 1994, Dennis Bergkamp of the Netherlands in 1998, England's David Beckham in 2002 and Germany's Jens Lehmann in 2006. Still, Mr Merhi's passion for Argentina goes beyond the World Cup. The love of Argentine football ultimately led to an appreciation of the country's sporting culture and history.

"It had always been a dream of mine to visit Argentina and see where Maradona played and two years ago I did it," he said. "I went to La Bombonera stadium where his old club, Boca Juniors, were playing. It was an amazing experience." So what are Argentina's chances in South Africa? "If coach Maradona can add organisation to the skill of this team, then the World Cup is a possibility," he said. "Then Maradona will really be a god."

@Email:akhaled@thenational.ae