Football powerbrokers are relying on the likes of Lionel Messi and Xavi doing for the global game what Tiger Woods has done for golf and Roger Federer for tennis in the oil-rich Gulf region.
Federer has played in Dubai and set up his off-season training camp here. Woods hasn’t only wooed the galleries at the Dubai Desert Classic, he has also designed and put his name to a course and resort to be opened soon.
Abu Dhabi will host its first Formula One Grand Prix later this year to add to the world’s richest horse race, the Dubai World Cup.
Now the UAE wants to become a major centre for international football, while using its wealth to tempt some of the world’s leading players and lift its domestic scene.
The first of the major football events will be the FIFA Club World Cup in December. The 2011 Asian Cup is being hosted by neighbouring Qatar. And with bids in for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, West Asia is pushing to mark its spot on the football map.
The official launch of the Club World Cup was held this week at the Emirates Palace, with tickets for the December 9-19 championship going on sale to mark 100 days until the tournament.
“The new world champion of club football will be crowned in Abu Dhabi in December and this is a unique opportunity for the people of the UAE to be part of an historic international event,” said Abdullah Yousuf, the general secretary of the UAE Football Association. “Some of the biggest names in football will be playing right here in our backyard for the very first time.”
The tournament is becoming an increasingly important part of the calendar and with European champion Barcelona visiting, UAE Football Association president Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi is planning to make good use of the exposure.
“Football fans in the country, across nationalities, will be queuing up to get a glimpse of superstars like Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Xavi,” al Rumaithi said. “I hope their interest is not just for that tournament.”
FIFA’s six confederations will be represented in the tournament, which previously was held in Japan.
FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer told the launch that the tournament was growing in status, citing Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s special emphasis on it last year.
“I remember Sir Alex Ferguson saying that whatever the club goes on to achieve in the future, people will always be able to look back at the records and see that in 2008, Manchester United were the champions of world club football.”
It is important for the UAE that the event piques interest domestically as the country prepares for its second professional league season.
By 2011, leagues that send teams to the Asian Champions League will be required to show an average domestic attendance of 5,000, considerably up from the current minimum of 2,000.
Despite free admission in most cases, last year’s inaugural professional season recorded an average attendance of 2,120. Yet the UAE still sent four teams to compete in the Champions League, the same as Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.
“Luckily enough, we did not lose our seats in the Asian Champions League for next season,” al Rumaithi said. The Asian Football Confederation “had a point against us regarding the crowd. So we will sit with the clubs and see how we can help them fill the stadiums during the Champions League matches.”
Al Rumaithi said the league had to be attractive to the wide cross-section of inhabitants.
The population of the seven emirates is almost 4.8 million, with about one-third either native Emirati or from other Arab countries. Roughly 50 percent of the population is from South Asia, with smaller percentages of expatriates from Western or other backgrounds.
Losing an allocated spot in the continental club championship because of poor attendances would be a major blow for the UAE.
“That really reflects poorly on the image of the country. I don’t want to lose a seat next year because of a lack of spectators,” he said. “Taking into consideration that 99 per cent of our stadiums have a capacity of 12,000-14,000, I believe that could be filled easily.”
To that end, Romy Gai, former marketing manager at Italian giants Juventus, is helping out.
“The main goal for us this season is to be very open to the expatriate community,” Gai said. “So from our side we will have I hope from the very start of the season at least one match a week televised in English. We will also have radio coverage in English.
“So we will start to open our arms. The quality of the new players joining us this season is amazing, and that will also help attract new fans.”
There has been a host of big-name signings to add to an already impressive cast including Brazilians Rafael Sobis and Fernando Baiano, as well as Chile international Jorge Valdivia.
Al Ain spent $10 million on Argentina star Jose Sand. Last season’s runner-up Al Jazira broke the bank for one of Brazil’s biggest talents Ricardo Oliveira and Al Nasr signed Ecuador 2006 World Cup star Carlos Tenorio. Champions Al Ahli are hoping to tempt Juventus great Pavel Nedved out of retirement.
Despite the big names, there are still problems that suggest that UAE football is not quite there yet.
In April 2009, Sharjah dented the competition’s reputation by withdrawing from the Asian Champions League with two games of the group stage remaining. The club was struggling and wanted to concentrate on avoiding relegation at home.
The UAE authorities were powerless to stop the move and the AFC reacted angrily, banning the club from the 2010 version and warning the local association.
“Sharjah had put us in a very difficult position and we had to really fight hard to keep our seats in the AFC Champions League,” said Abdullah Yousuf, the general secretary of the FA. “I don’t think the AFC will be so lenient if any of our clubs do this a second time. We cannot allow it. We are in a professional era now and we need to behave accordingly.