World Soccer
Wednesday December 9th, 2009

The United Arab Emirates' desire to host the FIFA Club World Cup -- which it is doing this year and next -- needs to be put into a wider sporting context to be fully understood.

It is not just that the Emirates wanted to host one of the world's most prestigious club tournaments, it is that it wanted to make the competition part of a series of high-end sporting events to which it could lay claim.

Over the past few years, the country has worked hard to establish itself as a business and tourist hub. This year saw it add a third dimension, with the UAE attempting to position itself as one of the world's premier sporting destinations: a magnet for top-class football, motor sports, golf and tennis events.

The centerpiece was the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. That was followed by the inaugural Dubai World Championship golf tournament three weeks later, which is the end-of-season climax to the re-branded Race to Dubai, which used to be known as the far less exciting-sounding European Tour Order of Merit.

November also saw Dubai host FIFA's Beach Soccer World Cup -- a sport where the hosts are now so good that they actually beat Brazil in Rio de Janeiro this summer.

Pakistan, which is unable to play international cricket in its homeland at present due to security issues, took on New Zealand in a five-match series in Abu Dhabi and Dubai during November. In January, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will, for the second year running, play in the invitational Capitala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi.

The northern emirate of Ras al-Khaimah was also ready to host the America's Cup race in February, until a New York court ruled in late October that the race had to be held in the southern hemisphere.

Such an array of events opens the UAE to a wide variety of sporting tourists and, perhaps even more importantly, gives the country exposure and prominence to fans watching around the world. But, despite the wide choice of sports, football is still king in the Emirates.

FIFA awarded the UAE back-to-back Club World Cups in May 2008, with a $5 million donation to grassroots football helping the Emirates beat off competition from Australia and Japan, where the event will return in 2011.

"I am sure that part of our bid made a big difference," admits Mohammed al-Mahmood, chief executive of Abu Dhabi Sports Council. "I think it is fair to say it could have made the difference between success and failure."

Before this year, the only FIFA competition to have been held in the UAE was the '03 World Youth Cup.

"They said then that they wanted a bigger event and this is it," says FIFA president Sepp Blatter. "The executive committee was unanimously in favor of the UAE bid and is very proud to take this competition there."

In the 16 months since the UAE was awarded the Club World Cup, a lot has happened in the world of Emirati football. On the ownership front, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bought Manchester City, while Sulaiman al-Fahim managed to buy and sell Portsmouth in a matter of months.

On the pitch, the UAE Under-19 team won the Asian championship for the first time and followed it up by reaching the quarterfinals of the Under-20 World Cup. And the Under-16s came third in the Asian competition to earn a spot at the Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria.

But while the youngsters have been doing well on foreign fields, back at home, Abu Dhabi has been readying itself to host the likes of Barcelona and Estudiantes de La Plata in the Club World Cup.

Five of the tournament's eight games, including the final, will be held at Zayed Sports City, with the other three, including the opener between UAE title-holder Al-Ahli and Oceania champion Auckland City on Wednesday, at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.

Both grounds have been improved significantly, with $20 million spent on the latter, raising its capacity from 15,000 to 42,000. Zayed Sports City's stadium will hold 45,000 and has new dressing rooms, hospitality areas and an upgraded royal box. Both venues will be alcohol-free and have dedicated female-only and family stands.

The grass on both pitches was shipped in from Panama, with seeds being sprayed on to them via hydro-sprigging, a technique which is normally used on golf courses and means those planting the seeds do not have to walk directly on to the area they are treating. The pitches were then put through 15 different tests, ranging from making sure the ball bounces correctly to checking the color and evenness of the grass.

"We are really impressed by what we have seen today, both in terms of the playing and training facilities, and the tremendous hospitality shown to us by the people of the UAE," said Albert Perrín, a Barcelona board member, when his club visited the UAE capital in September to check on the facilities.

"December promises to be an exciting month of football here and we sincerely hope that the next time we leave the UAE, it will be as Club World Cup champions."

While the absence of an English team will mean less traveling supporters, a considerable number of fans are still expected to make the short trip from Saudi Arabia. Barcelona's presence has been widely welcomed due to its four-year marketing deal with Etisalat, which is the Emirates' biggest telecommunications company. Special charter flights have also been arranged from Barcelona, while the Emirates is home to around 2,000 Spaniards.

There have been concerns that the matches will be played in half-empty stadiums. Last season, games in the Pro League -- the top division in the UAE -- averaged less than 2,500 fans, but around 18,000 were at the Mohammed bin Zayed stadium to watch Sheikh Mansour's Al-Jazira draw 2-2 with Al-Ain in October.

A test event was also held at Zayed Sports City in November, with the UAE national team taking on Manchester City in a friendly, and organizers are buoyed by the fact that the grand prix and this year's Capitala tennis event were both sold out.

They have made match tickets available that are affordable for almost every section of society, pricing them from $2.70 to $82. The cheapest ticket to watch Barcelona in their semifinal is just $4.10.

"I am 100 percent confident that we will attract big crowds for all of the matches," added al-Mahmood. "I feel sure the event will be a major success."

He is also confident that the tournament will not be affected by problems with supporters, who will be entertained outside the stadiums in designated fan zones. "The reputation of this country is such that we are not regarding security as an issue," he said. "We are providing other ways for them to enjoy themselves."

Mohamed al-Rumaithi, president of the UAE Football Association, says of the Club World Cup: "It is a unique opportunity for the people here to be part of an historic international event. Some of the biggest names in football will be playing right here in our backyard for the very first time."

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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