Empty stands show fans need support as much as the players

Empty stands show fans need support as much as the players
Another poorly attended club match in the UAE. (AFP)
Updated 02 November 2017

Empty stands show fans need support as much as the players

Empty stands show fans need support as much as the players

DUBAI: The AFC Champions League final between Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal and Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds marks the fourth consecutive year a team from Saudi Arabia or the UAE made the final of Asia’s top club competition.
The UAE’s Arabian Gulf League tops the latest AFC domestic leagues ranking while the Saudi Pro League ranks fourth behind China’s nouveau-riche Super League and South Korea’s K-League, and in both cases the rankings are well deserved.
From bringing top referees like Howard Webb and Mark Clattenburg to train and develop local referees, to an ambitious campaign to send players to European clubs, Saudi Arabia has taken measures to lift the level of players, competitions and the national team to a new heights.
In turn, the UAE is hosting the AFC Asian Cup in 2019, the second time in its history and its players Ahmed Khalil and Omar Abdulrahman have won the past two Asian Player of The Year awards respectively.
But for all their success on the pitch, the Gulf’s two major economic and sporting powers continue to struggle with one niggling issue off it: Creating and sustaining a unique and strong nationwide football culture.
Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad both have strong claims for the title of most popular club in Asia. The Blues boast an impressive record of over 8 million Twitter followers, the highest for any football club outside England and Spain. Al-Ittihad, meanwhile, constantly attract record attendances to their home games in Jeddah. In 2014/15, their average crowd was 42,000.
A glance beyond the big clubs, however, reveals a grim picture. Over the past four seasons, average crowds dropped a whopping 44 precent from an already low base of over 9,000 fans per match to an even scantier 5,100.
Overconcentration of clubs is one of the major reasons. Take the case of the twin towns of Al Majma’ah and Harma in central Saudi Arabia. Just 15 kilometers apart and with a combined population of just over 100,000 they are represented by two clubs in the top division, Al-Faisaly and Al-Faiha. It comes as no surprise that both clubs are struggling to attract more than 1,000 fans per game this season.
The UAE suffers an even bigger problem with poor attendances, given its relatively small population of 10 million and even smaller Emirati population. The country looked to address the abundance of clubs by pursuing mergers. Dubai, with a population of 2.7 million was represented by five top division clubs until its ruler Sheikh Mohammed ordered Al-Shabab, Al-Ahli and Dubai SC clubs to merge. Neighboring Sharjah followed suit combining its biggest two clubs Al-Shaab and Sharjah.
But so far even that has failed to produce a significant increase in support. Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai, the merged club, is averaging 2,900 fans a match compared to 1,800 for each of its individual components last season.
Across the region football remains one of the few channels of sub-national affiliation and community building. But, as popular as the sport is, overregulation of the terraces continues to stifle efforts to build a true indigenous fan culture.
Instead, the mainstream fan culture seems to revolve around supporting one of the nation’s big and rich clubs rather than rallying behind the local team.
The governing bodies and local league committees are not helping either. A few days ago, the UAE FA fined and suspended two Brazilian players from Al-Wasl, for a video in which they appeared to be engaging in innocent banter with young fans ahead of the big Dubai derby against Al-Nasr.
The incident is not the first. Fans in both UAE and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly been denied displaying banners expressing their views toward a certain issue related to their club or even taking a harmless dig at their rivals.
Contrast that with the famous “Wenger Out” banner, calling for dismissal of the Arsenal manager. The banner has made frequent appearances in stadiums and venues across the globe, from disgruntled Gunners fans, ironically including a volleyball match in Saudi Arabia.
Granted, England is the spiritual homeland of football and its flagship competition, the Premier League, is watched by billions across the planet. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not on that level, but as they continue to work hard to raise the level of the game on the pitch, they need to do the same off it by building a fan culture.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow women to attend games in stadiums and the UAE’s involvement of UAE-born expats in local competitions are all steps in the right direction, but fan culture needs to be allowed breathing space to grow organically.


UEFA Champions League final moved from Istanbul to Porto due to UK-Turkey travel restrictions

The match has been switched to the Estadio do Dragao, home of FC Porto, to allow English spectators to attend as travel between the UK and Turkey is suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Reuters/File Photo)
The match has been switched to the Estadio do Dragao, home of FC Porto, to allow English spectators to attend as travel between the UK and Turkey is suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 13 May 2021

UEFA Champions League final moved from Istanbul to Porto due to UK-Turkey travel restrictions

The match has been switched to the Estadio do Dragao, home of FC Porto, to allow English spectators to attend as travel between the UK and Turkey is suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • The match on May 29 has been switched to the Estadio do Dragao to allow English spectators to attend

PARIS: UEFA announced on Thursday that the Champions League final between Manchester City and Chelsea had been moved from Istanbul to Porto.

The match on May 29 has been switched to the Estadio do Dragao to allow English spectators to attend as travel between the UK and Turkey is suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier, European football’s governing body announced up to 6,000 supporters from each club will be able to attend.

“We accept that the decision of the British Government to place Turkey on the red list for travel was taken in good faith and in the best interests of protecting its citizens from the spread of the virus but it also presented us with a major challenge in staging a final featuring two English teams,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said in a statement.

“After the year that fans have endured, it is not right that they don’t have the chance to watch their teams in the biggest game of the season,” he added.

UK citizens returning from red list countries are required to quarantine at a government-approved hotel for 10 days.

Earlier this week, newspaper reports claimed the match would be played at Wembley Stadium.

Supporters groups from the Blues and City had requested the game be moved to England.

The UK’s Transport secretary Grant Shapps said he would have welcomed the fixture being played in London.

“The difficulties of moving the final are great and the FA and the authorities made every effort to try to stage the match in England and I would like to thank them for their work in trying to make it happen,” Ceferin said.

UEFA said coronavirus rules in the UK made it difficult to hold the fixture in the English capital.

“UEFA discussed moving the match to England but, despite exhaustive efforts on the part of the Football Association and the authorities, it was not possible to achieve the necessary exemptions from UK quarantine arrangements,” it said.

The final capacity at the ground in northern Portugal is still to be set.

Last season’s final as well as a ‘Final 8’ tournament for the quarter-finals were also held in Portugal, but in the capital Lisbon.

“Once again we have turned to our friends in Portugal to help both UEFA and the Champions League and I am, as always, very grateful to the FPF (Portuguese Football Association) and the Portuguese Government for agreeing to stage the match at such short notice,” Ceferin said.

The last round of the country’s top-flight Primeira Liga will see spectators return to stadia on May 19, with a limited number of people permitted, the league said on Wednesday.


Al-Jazira’s winning recipe of sustainable success a lesson for other clubs in region

Al-Jazira’s winning recipe of sustainable success a lesson for other clubs in region
Updated 13 May 2021

Al-Jazira’s winning recipe of sustainable success a lesson for other clubs in region

Al-Jazira’s winning recipe of sustainable success a lesson for other clubs in region
  • The Abu Dhabi side won the Arabian Gulf League with a policy of promoting young players instead of big-money signings

DUBAI: When Al-Jazira announced the signing of the UAE’s most high-profile player Omar Abdulrahman in August of 2019, all talk within the Arabian Gulf League fan bases was of the capital club spending their way to glory.

After all, Al-Jazira were unveiling a player who just three years earlier had been crowned Asia’s best and linked to European moves summer after summer. Lined up alongside him was another stellar signing, albeit less flashy; fellow UAE international midfielder Amer Abdulrahman.

The two would be joining a star-studded squad including the nation’s all-time top scorer Ali Mabkhout, Brazilian winger Kenno and South African international midfielder Thulani Serero.

The arrival of big-name signings was a familiar sight at a club that had over the previous 20 years been home to the likes of George Weah, Phillip Cocu, Mirko Vucinic and Ricardo Oliveira.

Twenty-one months, a global pandemic and a canceled season later, the title did indeed arrive to the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, but Al-Jazira’s path to glory could not have been any different to the expectations of two years earlier.

For starters, both Abdulrahmans have left the club. After failing to establish himself at Al-Jazira, Amer headed to Bani Yas, where he rediscovered his best form, becoming a key cog in a side that pushed his former employers until the last day of a two-horse title race. Omar fared slightly better at Al-Jazira, but a succession of injuries led to his contract termination and he went on to join Shabab Al-Ahli where he is yet to make an appearance in four months.

On the title-deciding night, it was another Omar who stole the headlines with a brace against Khorfakkan. The difference between the two Omars embodied the change of direction over the past 24 months, which culminated with a third league title for the Pride of Abu Dhabi. Omar Traore was scouted and recruited from Stade Malien aged 18. The little-known prospect from West Africa was registered under the “resident player” category, which allows Emirati clubs to register foreign players under the age of 20 outside the standard four-player quota applicable in domestic competitions.

Traore’s Man of the Match performance was just part of a bigger picture as Al-Jazira reaped the rewards of a strategy that saw them switch focus to youth and intelligent recruitment. Of the 11 players who started against Khorfakkan on Tuesday, four were under the age of 23. In fact, Al-Jazira were able to win the league with the youngest squad average age in the entire competition at just 25.2, including nine players under 23 in their squad.

Champions in 2010-11 and 2016-17, this latest Arabian Gulf League success will feel special for many Al-Jazira faithful, with six academy graduates at the core of it. Defenders Mohammed Al-Attas and Khalifa Al-Hammadi have played side by side since the age of 11 and both made their debuts as 17-year-olds. The pair became inseparable, earning their international call-ups and establishing themselves as mainstays for club and country before turning 24.

Then there is Abdullah Ramadan. Born in the UAE to Egyptian parents, the mercurial midfielder shone at every level. After being granted citizenship, he was called up to the national team and excelled for the UAE in the 2020 AFC U23 Championship as the young Whites reached the quarter-finals. That January in Thailand, it was a fellow Al-Jazira academy product who walked away with the Golden Boot; Zayed Al-Ameri has been hailed as the heir to Mabkhout’s throne as the club’s future goal machine.

This shift of direction and subsequent success at Al-Jazira was no coincidence. Sporting Director Mads Davidsen was recruited from Chinese side Shanghai SIPG last year. Earlier this season, he outlined the club’s vision.

“We have described our style of play as a club, that will never change. Even if the coach does change, the style of play, the football philosophy will never change. That is the core of our strategy,” said the Dane.

“A club-defined style of play, club-defined methodology, club-defined recruitment strategy. We look at recruitment differently. We look internally first where most people look externally. Every time you buy a player, it delays someone’s development.”

With the playing style clearly defined, Dutch tactician Marcel Keizer was brought back for a second spell at the club after winning a domestic double with Sporting Lisbon. The 52-year-old built on a legacy of Dutch success at the club, becoming the second Dutchman to win the league title at Al-Jazira after Ten Cate in 2016-17.

The margins might have been fine at the end, with Al-Jazira ending the season just three points ahead of their nearest chasers Bani Yas. But in proving their sustainable success philosophy can deliver results, the Pride of Abu Dhabi have shown other clubs the way forward in a region where short-termism and spending on star names is often perceived as the only sure way to success.


New protocols for public entry to stadiums, sports facilities

New protocols for public entry to stadiums, sports facilities
Updated 13 May 2021

New protocols for public entry to stadiums, sports facilities

New protocols for public entry to stadiums, sports facilities
  • People recorded in the Tawakkalna as "immune" from COVID-19 can now be admitted in sports arenas

JEDDAH: The Saudi Ministry of Sports on Wednesday issued new guidance for mass entry to stadiums and sports facilities, which included a number of important precautionary measures.

The protocols included social distancing and the wearing of masks, in addition to the mechanism for crowd entry and preventing gatherings inside the stands or at the doors.

The new guidance specified the categories of people that will be allowed to attend sports matches, according to what appears in the Tawakkalna app. 

People can be admitted if they are “immune” (having completed both doses of the vaccine), “immune after infection” (having recovered from the virus within the last six months), or “immune by the first dose” (having received the first dose of the vaccine).

Entry will also be permitted for people over seven and under 18, provided that their condition on Tawakkalna app is not “infected.” 

The new list of protocols follows an announcement on March 20, which limited sports match crowds to 40 percent of their total capacity from May 17.

The ministry said it had taken the necessary measures with sports federations and clubs to implement the protocols to ensure the health and safety of everyone. 

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia reported 13 more COVID-19-related deaths on Wednesday. The death toll now stands at 7,111.

The Ministry of Health reported 1,020 new cases, meaning that 429,389 people have now contracted the disease. There are 9,268 active cases, 1,352 of which are in critical condition.

According to the ministry, 342 of the newly recorded cases were in Riyadh, 276 in Makkah, 133 in the Eastern Province and 56 in Madinah.

In addition, 908 patients had recovered from the disease, bringing the total to 413,010 recoveries.

Saudi Arabia has so far conducted 17,740,919 PCR tests, with 71,040 carried out in the past 24 hours.

Saudi health clinics set up by the ministry as testing hubs or treatment centers have helped hundreds of thousands of people around the Kingdom since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Among those testing hubs are Taakad (make sure) centers and Tetamman (rest assured) clinics.

Taakad centers provide COVID-19 testing for those who show no or mild symptoms or believe they have come into contact with an infected individual, while the Tetamman clinics offer treatment and advice to those with virus symptoms, such as fever, loss of taste and smell and breathing difficulties.

Appointments to either service can also be made through the ministry’s Sehhaty app.

Saudis and expats in the Kingdom continue to receive their COVID-19 jabs, with 11,075,209 people inoculated so far.


Serena, playing her 1,000th career match, crashes out of Italian Open

Serena, playing her 1,000th career match, crashes out of Italian Open
Updated 13 May 2021

Serena, playing her 1,000th career match, crashes out of Italian Open

Serena, playing her 1,000th career match, crashes out of Italian Open
  • The early exit is a blow three weeks before the French Open in Paris on May 30

ROME: Serena Williams, playing the 1,000th WTA match of her career, lost on her return after nearly three months away to Nadia Podoroska in the second round of the WTA Italian Open on Wednesday.

The 39-year-old eighth seed fell 7-6 (8/6), 7-5 in under just two hours to the 44th-ranked Argentine, a surprise semifinalist at last year’s Roland Garros.

Williams, a four-time Rome winner and 23-time Grand Slam champion, had not played since her semifinal defeat in the Australian Open this year.

The early exit is a blow three weeks before the French Open in Paris on May 30 where the American continues her bid to equal Australia’s Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam trophies.

Despite a battling performance Williams could not wear down the 24-year-old Argentine who broke the American twice in the first set. Podoroska forced a tiebreak with an ace and squandered three set points before sealing the set.

In the second, Williams was trailing 5-2 but held and broke the Argentine to love while she served for the match to level at 5-5.

Podoroska held her nerve to earn three match points to secure just her third career win over a top-10 player, all in the last eight months.

For Williams it was her 149th defeat, with 851 wins over the course of a WTA career covering 1,000 matches.

But she will not get to celebrate with the Rome public, with spectators only allowed from Thursday’s third round at the Foro Italico while limited to a 25 percent capacity.

Podoroska next meets Croatia’s Petra Martic, who earlier beat France’s Kristina Mladenovic 7-5, 6-3. 


UEFA begins legal battle with Super League holdouts Real, Barca and Juve

UEFA begins legal battle with Super League holdouts Real, Barca and Juve
Updated 13 May 2021

UEFA begins legal battle with Super League holdouts Real, Barca and Juve

UEFA begins legal battle with Super League holdouts Real, Barca and Juve
  • The maximum punishment under UEFA’s disciplinary pathway is a two-year ban from European competition

LAUSANNE: UEFA on Wednesday initiated disciplinary proceedings against Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus, the three clubs yet to renounce the aborted European Super League project.

European football’s governing body has appointed disciplinary inspectors to conduct an investigation regarding a potential violation of UEFA rules by the clubs “in connection with the so-called ‘Super League’ project,”  it announced.

“Further information regarding this matter will be made available in due course.” 

UEFA last week said it would take “appropriate action” against the three clubs who still support the proposed Super League, a competition that would guarantee its founding members involvement every season, instead of having to qualify.

It did not specify the violations that may have been committed, although its statutes prohibit “combinations or alliances” between clubs without the body’s permission.

The maximum punishment under UEFA’s disciplinary pathway is a two-year ban from European competition, while club officials could be banned from any football-related activity.

However, UEFA’s options are clouded by a ruling from a commercial court in Madrid on April 20.

The court banned UEFA and FIFA from making any moves to block a Super League or taking any disciplinary measures against the clubs, players or officials involved.

It is also unclear what penalties the clubs that have withdrawn may owe to the remaining clubs for breaking their agreement to join the Super League.

The Super League was announced on April 18 but two days later it collapsed as the six Premier League clubs withdrew after angry protests from supporters and under pressure from the British government.

Nine of the original 12 clubs have now dropped out.

Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan were on Friday given a financial penalty by UEFA for their involvement.

They committed to taking “all steps within their power” to end their involvement in the breakaway league and agreed to participate in UEFA competitions for which they qualify. They also agreed to pay fines of 100 million euros ($121 million) if they ever seek to play in an “unauthorized” competition.

In response, Real, Barca and Juventus continued to defend the Super League proposal and condemned what it termed “threats” from UEFA.

The clubs issued a joint statement that said “the founding clubs have suffered, and continue to suffer, unacceptable third-party pressures (and) threats.”

“This is intolerable under the rule of law,” they added.

The trio said the Super League had been launched “with the aim of providing solutions to the current unsustainable situation in the football industry.”