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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 April 2019

India v UAE at Asian Cup: 'It will be home team against home team'

Indians pledge to throw their support behind their team for crucial clash with UAE on Thursday

Indian football fans Cris Clive and father Laurel will be cheering on their country against UAE on Thursday. Pawan Singh / The National
Indian football fans Cris Clive and father Laurel will be cheering on their country against UAE on Thursday. Pawan Singh / The National

Not all Indians are cricket crazy, some are football mad and they will be hoping to cheer their side on to glory in the Asian Cup.

Boosted by the surprise 4-1 victory against Thailand in the opening game on Sunday, the fans promise to be out in large numbers to support their team on Thursday as they face a crucial group match against hosts UAE.

It can't really be viewed as an away match for the passionate Indian contingent, however.

The UAE is a home from home for more than three million Indians - with their fans feeling a sense of kinship with the opposition.

“Actually both the UAE and India are home teams here. You can’t say India is playing an away game in this country because of the number of Indians who live here,” said Laurel Clive, who runs a ship repair company in Dubai.

“It’s like watching your home team play your home team and it's great to witness this. Of course, my heart says India but it’s like watching two brothers fight it out.

“The UAE is a tough team compared to Thailand, but this India team has the potential to beat both the UAE and Bahrain.”

Indians make up the largest expatriate community in the UAE.

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Read more:

Asian Cup 2019: Football's greatest nomad puts India on the map

Sunil Chhetri appeals to Indians in UAE to turn out in big numbers for Asian Cup

Asian Cup 2019: Complete guide to group stage fixtures and locations

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While thousands of fans turn up for cricket matches when India plays, the attendance for football games is thin.

“We need the masses to back football. The crowds for a cricket game are deafening and the cricketers are used to the noise and the pressure,” said Mr Clive, who plays football at least three times a week after work with friends.

“When the Indian team plays football, they need to feel their country is behind them. Then they can go out and perform in front of a crowd that supports them.

“We need that for our players. This Indian team is full of surprises so it will not be easy to take points away from us.”

The 43-year-old, along with his son Cris, will watch the next two India games in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.

Well-known as fervent followers of all things cricket, a growing number of Indians enjoy playing and watching football.

In the UAE, groups of friends and colleagues play football several times a week along with their children and organise yearly contests.

India's forward Sunil Chhetri, left, and midfielder Anirudh Thaparight, celebrate their sides third goal in the thumping 4-1 win over Thailand. AP    
India's forward Sunil Chhetri, left, and midfielder Anirudh Thaparight, celebrate their sides third goal in the thumping 4-1 win over Thailand. AP    

The talented India captain Sunil Chhetri is one of Cris’s favourite strikers.

Chhetri surpassed Argentina’s Lionel Messi when he scored twice against Thailand to reach 67 goals and become the second-highest international goal scorer currently active in the sport.

“Chhetri passing Messi in international goals inspires more youngsters to play. I enjoy watching games and seeing the spirit of the players,” said Cris, 17, a Chelsea supporter, who studies in Dubai English Speaking College and competes in inter-school football games.

“I have played cricket but don’t enjoy it. I find it very slow and not as interesting as football.”

A former Indian national footballer and UAE resident Franky Barreto said the current team’s performance has enthused the young.

“It will raise the expectation of kids. Although cricket is the number one sport in India, football is not lagging behind,” said the 47-year-old who works as student services manager with the University of Wollongong.

“Even if people do not play football, they follow it. I know a lot of Indian kids who look up to the Indian team.

“This is a good start and if they keep up their performance, there is a lot more to achieve. India now has to raise the bar because the teams they will play are strong. It has been good to see the fighting spirit the boys have been showing over the past few years.”

The sport has picked more followers due to the popularity of the Indian Super League (ISL), a franchise-based soccer competition in which teams representing different Indian cities and states battle each other.

Nirain Lobo, 52, who owns a furniture manufacturing business, enjoys watching the ISL with friends. He has been playing football with friends after work for the past 15 years.

Like most football fans, he would always pick the game over cricket.

“Playing football is a good way to relax and exercise with a competitive game among friends. It helps you forget about the day’s work and keep fit,” he said.

“There are many Indians who are passionate about football. This does surprise people who think India is only about cricket. I follow cricket if India is in the semi-final and final stages.

“But with football championship games at night, I don’t have the time to watch much cricket. The win against Thailand has heightened interest in the game. Seeing Indians like Chhetri score will make young fans feel, ‘I could do that for my country too.’”

Updated: January 10, 2019 02:30 PM

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