x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Veron calls tune as fans dance to beat of the drums

Pressure, according to Juan Sebastian Veron, comes with waking up at 5am to work on a construction site, not, as he did to great effect last night, building his side's attacks on a football pitch.

Pressure, according to Juan Sebastian Veron, comes with waking up at 5am to work on a construction site, not, as he did to great effect last night, building his side's attacks on a football pitch. It would appear the dynamic Estudiantes de La Plata midfielder was not just being modest. The Little Witch appeared entirely at ease as he cast a spell over the Pohang Steelers at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, despite the several thousand vocal Los Pincharratas supporters relying on him to ensure their long-haul trip was worthwhile.

Having travelled fairly extensively around Latin America earlier this year, I was under no illusion regarding the dedication and devotion fans display in the football-obsessed region. The beautiful game is a religion to many of them. Argentina's most famous luminary, Diego Maradona, even has his own church in his home town of Rosario. While in Buenos Aires, I attended a league match: Boca Juniors versus La Plata's Gimnasia at the famous La Bombonera stadium.

The atmosphere that afternoon was phenomenal, unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Arsenal versus Tottenham is intense, Glasgow Rangers versus Celtic is rowdy and raucous, yet against the Boca match, they both pale in comparison. Fans were climbing the fencing, flares and smoke bombs soon enveloped the pitch in a thick haze and the singing never stopped once. And Gimnasia are not even Boca's fiercest rivals - that honour goes to River Plate.

Last night, the inspirational Latin spirit arrived in Abu Dhabi. Flags waved, banners were held high, a sea of red-and-white clad fans bounced in perfect symmetry as drums banged and horns were blown. It was a fiesta in the desert and TP Mazembe's tribal band, trumpets and all, came along for the ride. There is an Estudiantes fan here this week who has been to every game since childhood - he is in his forties. There is another who sold his car to be here. Try telling them this tournament means nothing.

It has been three years since a team from South America have won the right to call themselves the best club side in the world. Internacional beat Barcel-ona in Tokyo in 2006 and Estudiantes will likely need to do the same in Abu Dhabi if they are to head home happy. Unlike last night, where Estudiantes were able to rely on a card-happy referee to help ease their passage into Saturday's final, Los Picharratas will need to count on wide players Leandro Benitez and Enzo Perez - along with the mercurial Veron - to cope with an opposition that possibly boast the most talented midfield ever: Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Yaya Toure, and Lionel Messi.

The Italian referee Roberto Rosetti's three second-half sendings off in the space of 21 minutes ruined what was otherwise an excellent showcase of stylish football. Whether he appears at another match this week remains to be seen, but he certainly does not deserve to, unlike Estudiantes, who more than merit their place in the top two of world football. If, as expected, Barcelona defeat Atlante tonight, then Saturday's finale has the potential to produce not just a festival atmosphere in the stands, but also the best football match the UAE has ever hosted.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae