Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 August 2019

Lonely UAE River Plate fan gets just deserts as team heads to Abu Dhabi

Leo Vera, 39, will see his team play in adopted homeland, weeks after witnessing historic win in Madrid

Leo Vera with his four-year-old son Matteo Vera, one of the few UAE-based River Plate supporters. Pawan Singh / The National 
Leo Vera with his four-year-old son Matteo Vera, one of the few UAE-based River Plate supporters. Pawan Singh / The National 

Supporting Argentinian football institution River Plate from the UAE is not easy.

The relatively low number of Argentine citizens living in the country can make the life of a fan a lonely one. Many popular European teams have informal UAE supporters’ clubs where fans gather to watch matches together, but River fan Leo Vera knows only one other fan in the UAE.

The time difference means league matches kick off in the early hours of the morning and Mr Vera and his friend have to stay up late to catch the action on TV. But this week, the corporate finance director, who was raised in Buenos Aires, will watch a game surrounded by thousands of his compatriots.

This month, River Plate were crowned the champions of the South American Copa Libertadores after the “game of the century” against fierce Buenos Aires rivals Boca Juniors in Madrid.

Fans of River Plate celebrate at the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid after the team won the all-Argentine Copa Libertadores final against Boca Juniors at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, on December 9, 2018. / AFP / RAGGIO ALBERTO
Fans of River Plate celebrate at the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid after the team won the all-Argentine Copa Libertadores final against Boca Juniors at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, on December 9, 2018. / AFP / RAGGIO ALBERTO

The victory meant the team qualified for the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi, with River set to play Al Ain on Tuesday at the city’s Hazza bin Zayed stadium in a semi-final.

A win could mean the team will face Real Madrid in Abu Dhabi on Sunday if the European giants beat Kashima Antlers of Japan, the Asian champions, on Wednesday.

“You really don’t have a lot of Argentinians in the UAE and those who are here support a lot of different teams,” Mr Vera said. “So there aren’t many River Plate fans here and, of course, I never expected to watch River play in the UAE.

“As we were progressing in the Copa Libertadores I was thinking ‘maybe we have a chance’. Then we got to the final, beat Boca Juniors and I was there. Now they’re coming to Abu Dhabi. It should be the best end to the year ever.”

Mr Vera, 39, said he is looking forward to a more relaxed experience than the recent final against Boca. He attended that game at short notice after it was twice postponed because of crowd trouble in Argentina and moved more than 9,600 kilometres away to Spain.

The win was made all the sweeter because Mr Vera’s brother, Sebastian, a Boca supporter, had also travelled to the game from Argentina.

“It was funny as I bought the tickets in the River Plate stand,” Mr Vera said. “So he had to pretend he was happy.

“It was the most important game in Argentinian football history. If we lost, it would have been heartbreaking. But it was incredible, afterwards it was a big party.

“Now, I’m really looking forward to the Club World Cup – it’s different because I feel like it doesn’t matter so much what happens.”

Mr Vera will attend tomorrow’s semi-final and is taking his son Matteo, 4, to Sunday’s game, when River will play in either a third-place play-off or the final.

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After the Copa Libertadores win, the River Plate squad travelled straight to the UAE, and have been preparing for the Club World Cup from their base in the Hili Rayhaan hotel, near the Oman border.

Mr Vera said he did not expect River fans to travel to the finals in their tens of thousands, as they did the last time they qualified for the Club World Cup. In 2015, he was among the supporters to make the journey to Japan, when he recalls Yokohama becoming “just like Buenos Aires” as Argentinians took over the city.

“Last time, in 2015, the dynamics were different, people had six months to plan,” he said. “This time, people have had two weeks. And a lot felt they had to go to Madrid, which was another big expense. So I don’t expect loads of River fans, probably less than 5,000.

“The people who are going to come here will be people who have things in life other than football. In Argentina, there are fanatics who think it’s life or death, so get carried away. But the fans who come to the UAE will behave.

“If we’re lucky enough to win here, against Real Madrid, it doesn’t get any better.”

Updated: December 17, 2018 08:30 AM

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