Abu Dhabi // Fifa, world football's governing body, is hoping the involvement of an Abu Dhabi-based side will help improve attendances at this year's Club World Cup in the UAE capital. More than 155,000 football fans turned out over 10 days in December last year to witness Barcelona be crowned champions. However, the opening match, an intriguing tie between Dubai-based Al Ahli and New Zealand's Auckland City, attracted only 14,856 spectators despite being held at the 42,000-capacity Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
The game was as memorable for the number of empty seats as it was for Chad Coombes's delicious 67th-minute drive from distance, which sealed a 2-0 victory for the visitors, and understandably both Fifa and the UAE Football Association are determined to avoid such scenes when the this year's tournament kicks off on December 8. With an increased promotional push planned and an innovative electronic ticketing system in place, both parties are confident of attracting significantly more spectators.
Yet Ko-ichiro Kato, the Fifa chief of the Club World Cup, said a primary factor in improved attendances could be the fact that this year's representatives are from the capital rather than Dubai. Al Wahda, the Pro League champions, play their home games at Al Nahyan Stadium, less than two kilometres from Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, the host venue of their curtain-raiser with Hekari United, the reigning Oceania champions from Papua New Guinea.
Kato believes that could be a crucial factor. "We've been around here for about two years now and we understand that the friendly rivalry between Abu Dhabi and Dubai seems to be bigger than London-Manchester, Liverpool-Manchester or any other city in the world," said Kato on the sidelines of yesterday's ticket launch. "This year we will really actually have the host city participating in the competition, so it is easy to assume the impact will be good. After all, it is easier to come to a stadium that is just across the road from your house than have to make the one-hour drive from Dubai."
Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi, the FA president, said it is in the best interest of all parties for the home side to win the first match and subsequently secure at least two more games as it makes the tournament as a whole a better, more successful spectacle. Kato agreed: "The success of the tournament can really depend on the result of the first match. "If you look at the World Cup in South Africa, putting the result aside, it was fantastic to see such a wonderful goal being scored by the home nation in the opening match, so I think if Wahda win the first match, it will result in a completely different scenario to what we saw last year."