The launch of a UAE members' club today means more fans will be able to see games in person or on the big screen.
New Man City club brings UAE fans closer to home
DUBAI // They are 5,600 kilometres from Etihad Stadium, but UAE fans of Manchester City have moved closer to their team with the launch of an international members' club.
The Sky Blue club, scheduled to be officially unveiled in the UAE this afternoon as the team face off against rivals Manchester United, will offer benefits such as discounted flights and tickets, and access to exclusive screenings of the games.
For devoted fans such as the Dubai resident Mohammed Ajmal Bhatti from Manchester, who claims to "bleed blue blood", the idea is a winner for UAE fans and City.
"As soon as we heard about it my son and I decided to join," said Mr Bhatti, 44. "I always say that City are the UAE's club now. It's events like this that attract true loyalty to a football team.
"What they are doing is superb. We are seeing a lot of Arab support now. You walk around malls in the city and you see people wearing City shirts. I'm really chuffed about it."
The Emirati fan Amro Mohammed Al Suwaidi, 26, who has ordered a custom-made kandura in the trademark sky blue of his favourite club, was a City fan before the club was taken over by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, a member of Abu Dhabi's Royal Family.
"I never miss a game," said Mr Al Suwaidi, who works for Etihad. "I haven't been to see them yet but hopefully I'll go soon."
He said the link with the UAE had bolstered interest in football among young Emiratis.
"For many nationals, they support the team because of that link," Mr Al Suwaidi said. "Many of my close friends never used to watch the Premier League and suddenly they were City fans."
Sky Blue will be free to join and members will be offered discounts of up to 40 per cent on flights to Manchester. Package deals including match tickets will be unveiled soon.
The members club will host members-only TV screenings, which will include promotions and discounts on merchandise, across the country.
Peter Baumgartner, the chief commercial officer of Etihad, said the deal with Manchester City was not just about "putting the Etihad name on a stadium".
"By participating in programmes such as this and engaging with the fans, providing added benefits for the Sky Blue members, we are creating a brand synergy that goes far beyond the traditional sponsor relationship," Mr Baumgartner said.
Mark Lynch, the founder of the Man City Supporters Club in Dubai, said the cheap airfare could spur fans to travel to Manchester for games.
"That's a big saving. It could sway a lot of people to just go back for the weekend," said Mr Lynch, 33, who works in construction. "There will be a lot of Mancunian expats using it."
Darren Ball, the founder of the Abu Dhabi Blues supporters' club, estimated that there are about 200 City fans in the UAE.
"I'm meeting new ones all the time but they haven't registered yet," said Mr Ball, 38. "We still have to see what the benefits are of this. If they can guarantee us tickets as well it opens up a whole different page."
The Man City manager Roberto Mancini said the club was looking forward to welcoming UAE supporters to Etihad Stadium this season.
"It feels right to launch Sky Blue in the UAE as we know people there are already passionate about City and feel loyal to the club," Mancini said.
The City captain Vincent Kompany said the last time he visited the UAE he noticed the country's passion for football.
"It was great to see how many people are City fans, and how they follow and support the team from thousands of miles away," Kompany said.
"I think it's fantastic to grow our fan base internationally, particularly in the UAE where we already have so many enthusiastic followers.
"Hopefully I will be visiting Abu Dhabi again soon and can meet some of the fans personally."
For more information, visitskyblue.mcfc.com.