It’s June 2013 and I’m in Belo Horizonte with a hand over my mouth. Tear gas and rubber bullets are being fired by nearby police who are unimpressed by Brazilian protesters.
Four months later and I find a hand over my mouth once more. This time, I’m in Addis Ababa, being held facedown in gravel while five Ethiopian youths rifle through my pockets.
Both situations have arisen, in part, because of football.
Assemble a large congregation of sports fans into a condensed, often underdeveloped area of a city and there is always the risk that mayhem might ensue. As I recently discovered, however, it need not always be like this. For the terrifically wealthy (or the recklessly loyal), there is another way to travel the world and watch the beautiful game; a way that allows you to temporarily live the life of a footballer. And without the need for ugly tattoos, crazy hairstyles or any remote hint of sporting talent.
Royal Jet, a bespoke, Abu Dhabi-based airline, offers chartered expeditions to anywhere in the world and aboard an airplane so luxurious that it’s the preferred mode of transport of professional sports teams and heads of state. Last month, it ran a football-themed flight aimed at big-spending supporters: an overnight trip to north-west England to see Manchester City face Barcelona in the Uefa Champions League.
The 40-hour sojourn from the UAE capital to Manchester and back could hardly have been more different from my two most recent football excursions, in Brazil and Ethiopia. No dirt, no disputes and no danger, yet I did, at times, still find a hand over my mouth – an instinctive reaction when faced with such out-of-this-world opulence.
I am stretched out in the back of a sleek, discreet Cadillac XT5 as Hussein, the Pakistani chauffeur, gently transports me from Dubai to the Royal Air Wing at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Located in a private terminal, the Royal Jet check-in lounge consists of plush golden couches and tables filled with bowls of fresh fruit and pitless dates. Having been advised to take a seat, a staff member in white gloves relieves me of my luggage and passport. No queues; no questions.
Over a delectable smoothie and a couple of thimbles of Arabic coffee, I observe some of the other 15 passengers who will join me on the Boeing 737-700. All Arabic and all male, they seem to have walked straight off the pages of the couture magazines on offer in the corner of the room: Hugo Boss suit jackets, Giorgio Armani jeans, Prada loafers, Salvatore Ferragamo sweaters.
Laith Al Obaidi, an Iraqi relationship manager with Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, is coordinating the trip for eight or nine of his company’s most important customers. He is no great fan of football, but he is a great fan of networking. He views the next 40 hours as an opportunity to strengthen the banker-client bond and possibly secure new high-income investors.
“We could have flown the clients first class for a similar price, but this is the VVIP experience,” Al Obaidi says, grinning. “In first class, you stay in your private cabin; on a private jet you are encouraged to walk around the plane and meet the other passengers. For me, that means potential business.”
Another benefit of private jets, I soon learn, is that anything goes. Having negotiated the x-ray machine (shoes can stay on) and climbed the plane’s steps (fitted with thick red carpet), I enter, to all intents and purposes, a spacious five-star hotel. There is no designated seating, no overhead storage compartments, seat-belts are optional and smoking is no problem. It’s little wonder that footballers are a law unto themselves. The preflight safety briefing aboard this Boeing 737-700 is concise: “If anything should go wrong, your nearest exit is at the front.”
Soukaina Belhaiba is one of four air stewardesses tasked to look after the 16 of us during the eight-hour flight. Originally from Morocco, she worked with Emirates before joining Royal Jet. Asked where in the world her current employment has taken her, she replies: “Anywhere the client wants to go and everywhere the plane can land.” That includes Swaziland, the Faroe Islands and Burkina Faso.
Ahead of take off, Belhaiba reunites me with my passport, hands out themed menus and provides a choice of novelty drinks: a sky-blue Manchester mocktail or a blood-red Barcelona bracer? There are themed cakes, balloons and posters of the two clubs taped to the wooden panelling. It all seems a tad tacky, but the personal touch is admirable.
At the rear of the jet is a private room, complete with double bed and en suite toilet. Surprisingly, there’s no shower. Nor is there Wi-Fi – however, Ahmed Al Junaibi, the aircraft’s on-board engineer, says that Royal Jet is in the process of refitting its fleet, which consists of six Boeings, two Gulfstreams and a small six-seater. Wi-Fi is being installed in each, he says, although it will be chargeable to the passenger.
Having been too slow off the mark to nab the private room, I spend the first few hours laid out on a lazy boy recliner and under a Royal Jet duvet (I opted against donning the airline’s comfortable-looking branded pyjamas). When I awake, I am greeted by Belhaiba, who offers a smorgasbord of fine finger food, including heaped spoonfuls of Iranian caviar.
An entire article could be written on the hors d’oeuvres alone, let alone the main courses that were served up afterwards. I’m still coming to terms with the fact the most succulent steak that I have ever tasted is no longer at Sparks Steak House in New York, but rather on a plane somewhere over central Europe.
Al Junaibi says that spending a month in South America or two weeks travelling Asia with a Saudi prince has its pros and cons, but that “the worst thing about my job is you get fat”. He is a slender man, but his premise is correct: when the food is this good and this plentiful, it’s impossible to say no. I largely spend the remainder of the flight eating.
7pm UAE / 3pm UK
Personally, when the level of splendour on the flight makes you consider whether you would rather stay on-board than attend what promises to be one of the most engrossing football matches in recent memory, the airline is probably doing something right. Yet there’s no need to take my word for it: Royal Jet has been named World’s Leading Private Jet Charter at the World Travel Awards for the past seven years.
“One of the benefits of our luxury vacations division is that we now have a group of people internally who are focused on leisure business,” says Shane O’Hare, the airline’s chief executive. “We are always looking for events that would be appealing to our target audience. We then make all the arrangements: flights, hotels, transfers, match tickets.”
And if football is not your thing, no problem. Bespoke flights tailored to your personal needs means that if you have the desire – and the funds – no place is out of reach. It also means, however, there’s something somewhat anticlimactic about descending through a dark sky and over drab terraced housing into Manchester on a Tuesday evening.
Such a feeling soon departs when I realise that the five-star treatment continues after disembarkation. We’re shuttled to a private air wing where, curiously, a signed Stoke City shirt hangs in a frame. Ten minutes after alighting, we’re collected by a fleet of luxurious Mercedes E350 Bluetecs and chauffeur-driven to the Hilton Deansgate.
Given two hours to freshen up in our hotel suites, we’re collected again and driven to the Etihad Stadium, home to Manchester City. Here, we’re shown to a hospitality suite, introduced to our two personal waitresses and provided a three-course pre-match meal that includes a “Taste of Lancashire” pie, mixed crostini and ironbark pumpkin risotto.
The match starts.
Taking in the game from a corporate box provides an interesting, zoo-like experience. A glass door allows you to either watch detachedly from the warm sanctum of the suite or out amid the mayhem on a private terrace. A sky-blue railing separates the sharp suits from the scuffed boots, and while you’re close enough to smell the meat pies and discern the guttural screams, you remain isolated enough to eat crackers and Camembert without the risk of having them knocked out of your hand.
The match ends.
Manchester City have lost 2-0, yet only one of the 16 guests looks disappointed. He wears a baseball cap branded with the club’s logo and works in the office of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed.
By the time that we reach the hotel, which is eight kilometres from the stadium, it’s close to midnight – even a luxury, chauffeur-driven Mercedes cannot escape post-football traffic. With the alarm call coming at 7am, there’s little chance to explore Manchester. Laith Al Obaidi proposes delaying the flight home by a few hours, but his request goes unfulfilled, a decision that becomes all the clearer considering that a 32-seat Boeing Business Jet costs up to US$16,000 (Dh58,768) per hour.
Shane O’Hare says that the all-inclusive price per person for the trip was $7,500 (Dh 27,548). When compared to the expense of a first-class flight plus hotel, match tickets and transfers, private jet is only marginally more expensive. And a lot more comfortable.
“The trip is priced to make a profit for Royal Jet, but because we have a very efficient cost base, we can achieve very good contracted rates on ground operations and, in this case, VIP corporate boxes in Manchester,” says O’Hare. “We were able to price the trip very attractively and will continue to look at innovative trips like this in the years to come.”
Arriving in Abu Dhabi, I decide that football travel needn’t be edgy. My experiences of economical travels in Ethiopia and Brazil showed me one side of the beautiful game, but the past 40 hours provided an enviable insight into how the other half live. I guess that the adage about football is true: it’s a game of two halves.
The Abu Dhabi-based Royal Jet Luxury Vacations (www.royaljetgroup.com; 02 505 1500) offers an extensive range of luxury holidays all over the world, including Europe, Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Middle East.