Abu Dhabi has a football culture past and is Fifa’s future centre

Abu Dhabi is clearly seen by the governing body as ‘a Fifa heartland’, writes Miguel Delaney, and president Gianni Infantino meanwhile harbours visions of bringing a full World Cup to the region

Friday 11 February 2022 08:15 GMT
Club World Cup match between Monterrey v Al Jazira plays out in Abu Dhabi
Club World Cup match between Monterrey v Al Jazira plays out in Abu Dhabi (Reuters)

While Abu Dhabi has never been more visible in football, the game itself isn’t all that visible in Abu Dhabi. You could certainly walk around the city during the day without realising it is hosting the Club World Cup for the fifth time.

The only giveaways were the occasional banners, and the Palmeiras fans.

They will no doubt fill the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium when they take on Chelsea for the final on Saturday, but that will make some difference from Wednesday’s semi-final.

The ground, named after the crown prince of the Emirate, can hold 37,000 people but only had 19,175 in it for the European champions’ match with Al Hilal. From the admittedly raucous sound, the majority of those were evidently supporters of the Saudi Arabian champions. They did offer a welcome glimpse of their own country’s vibrant football culture, with some glorious chanting, and a willingness to stay behind to express pride in their players long after the final whistle.

Such support no doubt played its part in Al Hilal giving a hugely creditable account of themselves.

Anyone who wanted a glimpse into Abu Dhabi’s football culture would have been left wondering, though. The fact there were so many tickets on sale in the run-up to the game is testament to that. Whether there are more takers for the final may reveal a little more.

The emirate does occupy an intriguing place in the game right now, even beyond the questions over sportswashing.

It is part of a country that does have a distinguished place in the sport, having been one of the few from the middle east to have qualified for the World Cup. The United Arab Emirates were knocked out of the group stage of the fabled Italia 90, meeting eventual champions West Germany there. For many modern football fans, it’s highly likely their first awareness of the nation was the split-picture Panini stickers that came out in the build-up to that fabled tournament. Most of their players weren’t famous enough to be afforded stickers of their own.

Much more relevant to the future of the game, Abu Dhabi is clearly seen by the governing body as “a Fifa heartland”, according to a series of sources. The very fact that this is the fifth time the emirate has held this competition is testament to that.

President Gianni Infantino meanwhile harbours visions of bringing a full World Cup to the region, possibly as part of one that is hosted right across the middle east. Such perceptions - and the belief that Fifa is now only interested in “new” football territories - form one big reason why the Football Association and rest of the five-federation bid this week opted to go for a European Championships rather than a World Cup. They know they have a much better chance.

There is similarly a view within the European game that Fifa want to spread their base well beyond Switzerland, to take in the USA as well as the Middle East.

This, after all is said and done, is where most of the money is. This is one other reason it suits Fifa to host the Club World Cup here.

China is purportedly receding in influence in the game, but that isn’t the case for these middle eastern powers. Their hierarchies have good relationships with Fifa and, while Infantino harbours ambitions of “changing the world through football”, many of these states have visions of changing their images through football.

This is of course where Abu Dhabi’s ownership of Manchester City is so relevant. It has been resoundingly successful in terms of promoting the emirate. You only have to look at the way Etihad - the name of the national airline but also shorthand for the club’s stadium, given the sponsorship - has become an unquestioned part of the language of the game.

Given the way Abu Dhabi use City to promote the emirate all over the world, though, it is notable that there are barely any signs of the club anywhere in Abu Dhabi.

You don’t even get a picture of Pep Guardiola greeting you at the airport. You don't really see any sky blue at all.

That reflects how the image within Abu Dhabi isn’t really the point of the project, but it does raise wider points about the area’s football culture.

There is clearly a deeper love for the game here. You don’t get to a World Cup without that.

You don’t get much of it from this Club World Cup, though. It has so far been much more instructive about Saudi football culture.

it's not like there were cavalcades of fans on the long road down from the centre to the MBZ stadium. The mood has been quiet.

It makes some difference to the noise they're making in football as a whole.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in