Abu Dhabi is one of the great cities to watch football in person

With the Asian Cup upon us, it is time to support our national side in the stadiums, not the cafes

UAE fans cheer for their team prior to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup football game between United Arab Emirates and Bahrain at the Zayed sports city stadiuam in Abu Dhabi on January 05, 2019. / AFP / Khaled DESOUKI
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Yes, I know this headline is a bold claim, but what I mean by "watch" is enjoying a game in coffee shops, not in stands. Over the years, I've watched the European Cup Final inside a restaurant in Amsterdam, and while I saw 2017's Champions League final in a cafe in Lisbon, a football-loving city, nothing compared to the raw emotion I experience in any one of the capital's coffee shops.

Ironically, a lot of that energy comes precisely from being far away from the action. We, perhaps subconsciously, try to recreate the same vibe of the stadium by sitting tightly in plastic chairs and expressing our delight and dismay in various language and dialects.

But, with the region’s premiere football event, the Asian Cup, hosted in the UAE right now, it is time to transfer that rabid coffee shop energy and fandom to the stadiums. However, after getting used to watching the matches in relative ease, not to mention with a large glass of avocado juice, I didn’t know if going to watch a live football game here would deliver that same combination of excitement and comfort.

Fortunately, after my experience of catching the tournament’s opening game last weekend, where the UAE took on our neighbours Bahrain, I can say it’s an exhilarating experience. In fact, any resident of the country should include watching the UAE football team playing a home game on their bucket-list.

The atmosphere I felt that night was akin to a festival, and that was well before we arrived at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium. Arriving at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque to park my car and catch a free bus to the venue, a security guard ushered me to a white van, which was surrounded by people. In the middle of the crowd was an older gentlemen giving away free (unofficial) national team jerseys and caps that we could wear in the stadium.

Then there was the 10-minute bus ride, which was just long enough for a group of fans to launch into a song extolling the virtues of the national side, complete with the refrain of “fareeqna Al Abtal” (Our team are victors).

The stadium itself was another revelation. Years of watching the football in coffee shops made me forget that so many young Emiratis also love the round ball. I sat next to a large contingent of kandura-clad teenagers with an encyclopedic knowledge of the team, that they were happy to share.

“Omer Abdel Rahman is good, it is Ali Mabkhout that is our best player,” the boy behind me said. “I am not looking for flashiness like Omer. I need consistency man.” Indeed, there was nothing flashy about the game. It was a quite mediocre affair actually – as both teams were reportedly nervous – but it was the exuberant spirit and sea of white and red shirts that made it all memorable.

With the UAE team playing Thailand on Monday night at Al Ain's stellar Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, I recommend you all ditch the cafes and majlises and watch it at the venue. Because, whatever the result, the joy and enthusiasm of the crowd is unbeatable.

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