The eyes of world football return to the UAE on Wednesday evening.
After seven years away, the 2017 Club World Cup kicks-off in earnest when Al Jazira, the sole Emirates entrants, battle the veteran semi-professionals of Auckland City. At stake in the resplendent Hazza bin Zayed Stadium is a place in the tournament proper and the true oasis in the middle of the desert; a potential semi-final meeting with European grandees Real Madrid.
Football in the UAE is in need of the adrenaline burst provided by such exalted visitors. The heralded ‘Golden Generation’ of Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil and company was recently found to be made of pyrite, coming up short in an apparently predestined quest to make World Cup 2018.
Similar depression can be found in the domestic game. Declining oil prices have drained several star names away, while continued indifference and isolation make average crowds in the Arabian Gulf League remain small by most standards across the globe.
Yet holding marquee sporting events – with 2018’s competition to follow – is usually something in which the country has excelled. Optimism is not misguided about the football extravaganza ahead.
From the iconic Dubai World Cup and its $10 million bonanza for horse racing’s finest, to the glamorous Formula One circuit winding down its season in style at Yas Marina. This sense of grandeur is extended to golf and tennis, where the Race to Dubai and Dubai Duty Free Tennis tournament are among those cherished.
Madrid are adored in the UAE, fervent fans sure to pack out each game and event they arrange once they arrive next Monday. ‘Fly Emirates’ adorns their treasured jerseys, while IPIC remain officially attached to the Bernabeu redevelopment despite reports in Spain of a split.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Isco, Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and the rest of their illustrious cohorts will be treated like sporting gods from the moment they set foot in the Middle East.
It is hoped that reverence is also granted to Gremio, Urawa Red Diamonds, Wydad Casablanca and Pachuca.
Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and Internazionale attracted huge crowds during both previous runnings nearly a decade ago, but large swathes of empty seats were regular sights for the best of the rest.
Organisers will be tested by such intense interest in Europe’s finest. Madrid’s last visit to Dubai in December 2014 led to ugly scenes outside The Sevens as an unexpected onslaught of fans caused about 2,000 spectators to be denied access to the friendly with AC Milan.
— #ClubWC 🇦🇪🏆 (@FIFAcom) December 5, 2017
For a true legacy to be created, AGL holders Jazira must experience similarly exacting times. The Pride of Abu Dhabi’s Emirati contingent have missed out on an invaluable stint next summer in Russia.
For the continued development of the next generation in moustached playmaker Khalfan Mubarak, emerging full-back Mohammed Al Attas and his 22-year-old uncle Ahmed Al Attas, more exposure to elite action is invaluable.
Beat Auckland’s semi-pros, and this opportunity opens up.
Precedents for success by the domestic entrants are fresh. J1 League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima – with Al Ain’s Douglas scoring twice – finished third in 2015, while Kashima Antlers memorably pushed Madrid to extra-time in last year’s showpiece.
This is 10, rare, days in the sun for UAE football. It can’t let this chance go by.
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