Paul Oberjuerge header image 2

The UAE Experience: A President’s Cup Final

May 28th, 2013 · No Comments · Abu Dhabi, Football, Pro League, soccer, The National, tourism, Travel, UAE


You could come to the UAE in January to have a look around. The temps would be in the 80s Fahrenheit, and if you hailed from the northern halves of Europe or North America you would be quite grateful for the sun and the warmth and perhaps even for the sheer number of fellow snowbirds knocking around the place, especially in Dubai, with whom you could go clubbing at night.

But to absorb a more authentic UAE experience, you need to be here later in the year. July or August, if you want to experience the depths of the searing summer. Or a bit earlier, if you want to take in some authentic local culture as well as lots of UV rays.

That was how it worked for a visitor here this week. He not only got some quality beach time … he saw the President’s Cup final tonight, and nothing says “UAE” like the country’s biggest soccer game.

I have been over the math before. The President’s Cup can attract as many as 40,000 spectators, 95 percent of them Emirati males, which annually has to make it the country’s greatest gathering of male citizens.

Let’s see … 1 million Emiratis, 500,000 of them men, and if 25,000 of them turn out for the final … that’s 5 percent of all Emirati men in the country in one stadium at one time.

We were not far from that figure at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, the home ground of the Al Jazira club.

The Dubai clubs Al Shabab and Al Ahli were playing, and lots of their fans made the 90-minute trek down to Abu Dhabi for the final, many in buses arranged by the clubs. Because it’s a big deal.

As it is in most countries where soccer is king, winning the league is the most significant achievement (Al Ain won the Pro League this year), but when it comes to a one-day event, the Cup is bigger. It  draws lots of viewers who are not fans of either team.

Historically, one of the draws was the presence of Sheikh Zayed, the George Washington of the UAE. Locally born players were always very excited at the prospect of shaking his hand after the final whistle.

Over the past decade or so, dating to when Sheikh Zayed’s health became frail (he died in 2004), the game usually has been seen by Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai or by Sheikh Mohammed of Abu Dhabi, the crown prince of the largest emirate. And most of the Emirati citizens who kick soccer balls are excited about seeing them, too.

So, our visitor was plunged into large groups of Emiratis, which happens here rarely, at a local soccer match, which expats tend not to see.

We sat with the fans, and seemed to be the only westerners in the whole of the Shabab support. A few guys from the subcontinent, it seemed, but not another European in sight.

It should be noted that this can be a moment of self-awareness — not wearing a kandura, not speaking Arabic, not knowing the chants — but it is never an uncomfortable moment.

Emiratis seem genuinely pleased when western expats show up at one of their very-local events and behave properly. That is, not making nuisances of themselves or falling down drunk. Watching the game. “Ahli is way better, but Shabab is hanging around.”

We sat near the end of the pitch, because the early-arrivers had taken all the best seats (it was first-come, first-served) and couldn’t see quite everything, when guys stood up for something in the near corner at the opposite end of the field.

Shabab had induced the UAE’s premier cheerleader, a portly young guy known as Falooda, to come and lead cheers, and he got the crowd into it as Shabab rallied. (To be honest, Falooda’s voice was not quite up to it, something he told The National was his greatest fear, when we did a profile on him a few years ago.)

Our UAE visitor was able to hear the complains and celebrations, in Arabic, and get a sense of how fans react, and the singing they do, and what sort of soccer is played here — generally not of a particularly high standard (it’s a small country), but capable of sublime moments, especially when the Brazilians are clicking, and Shabab’s were.

So, the visitor and I sat in the stand, and sweated (it was close to 100 at 6:15 p.m.), and he ran down to buy some water (Dh2 each) at halftime, during which he noticed hundreds of guys observing the sunset call to prayer, and when it was over it was 4-3 Ahli (see the highlights here), and Ahli players began celebrating and we headed for the exits, with the rest of the Shabab fans who did not want to see Ahli celebrate. (That being the proper reaction for losing fans anywhere in the world.)

We waded through the disappointed Shabab fans to a rendezvous point about a half-mile from the stadium, still sweating, and when we were back inside an air-conditioned room our visitor drank about a half-gallon of water … which is so UAE!  Almost passing out in the heat, being dehydrated, soaking up fluids.

I was glad he got a chance to see it, and to feel the heat, because that is the real Emirati experience. Not the golf tournament in mild February. The sweaty closeness of thousands of local citizens during the first month of the eternal summer.

I love the President’s Cup for all that. If anyone else comes to visit, I will recommend it.


0 responses so far ↓

  • There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment