Al Ain aim to keep the Club World Cup party going against River Plate

Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium was rocking during the host club's stunning win over Esperance de Tunis - expect more of the same when they face South America's finest

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There are normally relatively few parallels between the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain and El Monumental in Buenos Aires. But this is not a normal week in UAE football.

On Tuesday night, River Plate will assume the home-team dressing room at the 25,000 capacity ground in the Garden City. And, three days earlier, on Saturday night, the gorgeous new-build stadium in the desert played host to an occasion that felt every bit monumental.

Esperance de Tunis versus Al Ain was a riot. Not of the kind that requires armed police and tear gas, but one of colour and noise, and joy and heartbreak.

Flares were smuggled in to the home end, and unleashed with wild fervour by bare-chested Esperance supporters. That old symbol of football fanaticism was met immediately by a new one at the other end by fans in kanduras, who created a spontaneous light show using the flashlights on their smart phones.


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In the final moments, the Al Ain fans gave another airing to the huge canvas that had been created for their pre-match, tifo choreography, declaring that there is “Only One Boss”.

And, by the end, there was. Al Ain, the home representatives at the Fifa Club World Cup by virtue of being reigning Arabian Gulf League champions, had been unnervingly comfortable 3-0 winners against the champions of Africa.

Thus they will be pitted against one of the great names in all of football, River Plate, the storied Argentine club who have arrived at the Club World Cup as champions of South America.

This was every reason to celebrate, on a glorious night for UAE football when the atmosphere was rent with good will and cheer.

Supporters even filed away neatly in their cars afterwards. No-one jumped the traffic. Being in it seemed like part of the fun, as drivers sounded their horns and passengers waved scarves out of sunroofs and windows.

Around 30 minutes after the final whistle sounded, a taxi was stuck deep in soft sand on the side of the road that runs parallel to the stadium’s northern end. Supporters in purple Al Ain away shirts and scarfs tied a tow-rope to the taxi, and merrily set about helping.

As the operation to extricate the cab was underway, one of the supporters sat on the boot and carried on singing songs of celebration.

After the vehicle was edged to the safety of the tarmac on the main road, the taxi driver got out from his seat and raised both arms aloft as though he had scored the winning goal in the cup final.

The rescue team removed the tow-ropes, and returned to the throng, singing about “Ainawy! Ainawy!” as they went.

There is every reason to believe the atmosphere will be similar when Al Ain go about their Mission Improbable against River on Tuesday.

For the players, it will be their third match in six days. The first of those lasted 120 minutes. A virus has beset the club in recent days. And, of course, they will be up against pedigree opposition, too.

Zoran Mamic, the Al Ain manager, is hopeful “The Boss,” as Al Ain are known informally, will have a 12th man in full voice to help them through.

“I hope the stadium will be full,” Mamic said. “I hope also some Argentinian fans come also because they always make a good atmosphere. I also want to thanks our fans for great support and for making a great ambience in the stadium.

“It is lovely to play under these conditions, a pleasure for our players, our coaching staff, and I am sure for the semifinal it will be better.”

It is clear, too, that Al Ain are representing something bigger than just their own club. Even though their side were 3-0 down and it was clear the match was lost, Esperance’s fans continued with their manic din, and lit their flares.

As they did, at the other end of the stadium, loud cheers of “UAE! UAE!” echoed from the stands. This is not about domestic bragging rights. Al Ain are doing this for the Emirates.

“We want to enjoy the semi-final and represent the club and the country in the best possible way,” Mamic said.

“We have to be proud of the job we have done until now. We have to be happy, we have to be focused, and I don’t think motivation will be a problem. Who doesn’t want to play in the semi-final of the World Cup?”