As a lifelong football fan, there have been many benefits of moving to Abu Dhabi from Melbourne nearly eight years ago. The biggest is the pleasure of watching tournaments such as the World Cup at a civilised time, and European matches that kick-off from 2pm to midnight.
This is a far cry from my time living Down Under when watching the big match required a 3am alarm and, consequently, a groggy day in the office.
And while I’m certainly savouring all of the football action while eating dinner, another unexpected pleasure of watching the World Cup in the UAE’s capital is the diversity of fans to share the beautiful game with. Who needs to travel to the host nation Russia and hang out in the fan zones when you have all of the world right here?
For the World Cup, which runs until July 15, I have been making a point of watching the matches in Abu Dhabi venues that share a cultural link with some of the competing teams. As a result, my viewing experience has considerably heightened.
The Arab teams' games
When it came to the Arab teams, there was no greater place to watch the matches than in the city’s plethora of shisha cafes. This, in my opinion, was the second best experience after being at the stadium itself. Here we were all packed tightly together in wonky plastic chairs, nursing our mint teas from the sudden and expansive gesticulations of those sitting beside us.
Needless to say, with all of the Arab teams knocked out in the first round, the cafes turned from being a place of celebration to the host of therapy sessions on the nature of defeat.
“What’s the point of trying,” exclaimed the Egyptian coffee-maker Abdou in Khalidya’s Al Noukhada.
“If we are going to work our guts out to be in this stupid tournament then that work should continue once we are actually there. I mean, I didn’t come to Abu Dhabi for a holiday. I came here to work. It’s the same thing.”
The German games
For Germany’s games, meanwhile, I experienced the true meaning of German stoicism at the Brauhaus restaurant. I watched the team’s shock defeat by Mexico there, however there was none of the wailing and beseeching at the large screen that I saw when Saudi Arabia were thumped by Russia. There a deathly silence on the outside tables as people morosely tucked into schnitzels and sauerkraut.
When the final whistle blew, there was an almost collective rueful sigh as dinner groups then began immediately discussing the next German game.
The Belgian games
Unexpectedly, it was the Belgians who delivered the celebratory vibes that I was looking for, and that’s because their national side was winning with style.
Responding to the Facebook call out from the UAE-based fan club, the Red Devils, I went to the Belgian Beer Café and encountered a cacophonous sea of red, with more than a hundred Belgians chanting and dancing along to make-shift tambourines.
The most memorable of all was the half-time entertainment provided by a singer and a flautist as they took on Euro-pop hits such as All That She Wants by Ace of Base.
With a few weeks left for the tournament, I recommend you ditch the home viewing and the lavish tents and go out and experience the game with the hard-core fans in the nation’s many global bars and restaurants.
Not only does this make for a more thrilling football-watching experience, but it truly is a representation of the UAE’s glorious cultural mix.
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