“I live in Al Ain but I’d die for Al Wasl.” Salem Alkarbi is only (half) joking. But what’s no joke is his dedication to Al Wasl Football Club.
The Emirati superfan holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest fan scarf; received a letter from US president Barack Obama when he sent him an Al Wasl club jersey; and even gave a present of a baby camel to Diego Maradona’s grandson when he was manager.
Alkarbi is from Al Ain and works for Tawazun in Abu Dhabi. Why does he support a Dubai-based club? “Many people from Dubai support Al Ain and many from Abu Dhabi like Al Ain and Al Wasl. It’s normal. Even if it’s a long time since we won a title, it’s in the heart.”
His connection to one of the most decorated football clubs in the country goes back to 1992. The previous season of the UAE Football League, now the Arabian Gulf League, was disrupted because of the Gulf War. But the following year it went down to the last game of the season.
Every day after school, seven-year-old Alkarbi would watch cartoons or wrestling. But on this day, every channel was showing a certain football match.
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“I watched it because I had no choice. Afterwards, I saw the players jumping and happy! What happened? Al Wasl had won.”
Al Wasl had beaten Kalba to clinch the 1992 title and so began Alkarbi’s enduring affiliation with the team known as the Cheetahs. Based at the Zabeel Stadium in Dubai, the team has a glittering history, winning seven league titles (the last in 2007), two UAE President’s Cups and the GCC Club Cup in 2010. Al Wasl’s Fahad Khamees is the Arabian Gulf League’s all-time top scorer.
Life as an ordinary supporter was never for Alkarbi, especially when all his brothers support Al Ain.
“To be a fan is not only to go to the stadium, show tickets, eat popcorn and say “hey pass the ball” and leave. No. I want to be creative.”
So in August 2008, Alkarbi created a fan website. It’s hard to believe now but then there was no Instagram. Twitter had been launched two years before and the widespread use of social media had yet to reach the UAE. The website was a place where fans could talk, argue and reminisce about the club. But this was not enough. When AlKarbi watched Barack Obama give his inauguration address in Washington DC in January 2009, he imagined the president wearing an Al Wasl jersey. So he made him a personalised one with 44 emblazoned on the back, sent it to him via the US embassy here and about eight months later came back a letter from Obama wishing the club well.
But he was not finished. “After Obama, everyone asked what’s next? That pushed me. Do something new and crazy and don’t copy things. I saw the Guinness book and thought why don’t I have a page inside?”
So after four years planning, a tailor in Sharjah made the world’s longest fan scarf in 12 days. It measures 1,192.5 metres and was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records at Al Wasl Sports Club on March 27, 2014.
“Every day, I say good morning. It’s like my baby,” he says with a chuckle.
Alkarbi’s mind is never far from the fortunes of Al Wasl and the greatest ire is reserved for neighbours and great rivals Al Nasr. This is the game that everyone wants to win – equivalent to Manchester City v Manchester United.
Before a big match the taunting starts on social media. “We have a special song for Al Nasr – we named them penguins. Why? Because they have penguins at Nasr Leisureland and they are small. But we are the cheetahs.”
Now Alkarbi has started his own football charity. Called “Beyond the Boundaries of Football”, he tries to help disadvantaged children, especially orphans and victims of domestic violence. So far he’s been to 18 countries including Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Egypt, Uganda, the Philippines and Bangladesh bringing Al Wasl and UAE jerseys, organising games, giving out toys and awarding trophies to help these youngsters find some joy in their lives again. Alkarbi works with local clubs and charities, runs it on his Instagram page and a website is set to follow.
But for the moment, all roads lead to Zabeel Stadium on Friday night where Al Wasl host Abu Dhabi’s Al Wahda in a crunch tie. “It will be crazy and whoever wins will be top.”