'For fans it was very much Real Madrid In Abu Dhabi, THEIR Abu Dhabi' ahead of Fifa Club World Cup semi-finals
John McAuley visits the capital’s NYU campus to find what felt like the entire emirate had descended on Saadiyat Island to watch Ronaldo and Co train
So Real Madrid, pretty popular, yeah?
That was certainly borne out on Monday night in Abu Dhabi, when the world’s grandest club descended on the capital’s New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) campus to train ahead of this week’s Fifa Club World Cup semi-final against Al Jazira.
Abu Dhabi responded in kind, with what felt like the entire emirate descending on Saadiyat Island. A right din was made by the hundreds who did turn out, first when Madrid’s team bus rocked up around 6:25pm UAE time, a good half hour before the players trotted out to stretch their legs and warm their muscles, staving off a nippy night in the Emirates.
Madrid are used to all this of course, 12-time winners of the European Cup, holders of the Uefa Champions League three of the past four years. Wherever they travel, they cause a stir.
That much was evident even before they made the short journey from their hotel to NYUAD, with fans staked out there, stalking their every move, supplying social media with a regular stream of sightings and first-hand stories.
Fresh off the plane from Spain late on Sunday, soon Madrid made their way to training, obligatory police escort guiding the way. Once there, they were met with a crescendo of calls: “Ronaldo!”, “Bale!”, “Marcelo!”, “Ramos!”.
TV crews from Spain, Brazil and Japan chased the crowd, interviewing local journalists to decipher what it really means to have Madrid, that illustrious old club, the illustrious old club, in their own backyard.
It was not too difficult to discern: it means a lot.
Fans sported Madrid jerseys, Madrid baseball caps, Madrid scarves. A few even draped themselves in Madrid flags. The majority, though, scrambled to make it inside the modest but impressive athletic facility. Those that did not were undeterred, peering over the towering fence that enveloped the running track that encircled the pitch.
Still, they howled and hollered with the best of them.
Such is the significance of becoming the first team to win the Club World Cup back-to-back, the defending champions have brought with them to Abu Dhabi a full squad. Ronaldo, Bale, Marcelo, Ramos et al.
When the team opened training with laps of the pitch, the noise grew as they jogged past the stand housing the supporters. The players seemed content with chatting among themselves as they trotted.
For them, Abu Dhabi could be Yokohama, or Marrakesh, or any number of far-flung places the Real Madrid juggernaut parks throughout the year. For the fans, however, it was very much Madrid In Abu Dhabi, their Abu Dhabi.
Eager simply to shake off any jetlag, the training was not too intense, although welcome news was that Gareth Bale and Rafael Varane, two recent injury concerns, were involved.
Sergio Ramos, the captain who has grown to embody this Madrid side, trained as well after missing through suspension Saturday’s thrashing of Sevilla, but his left calf was strapped.
On the sidelines, former full-backs Michel Salgado and Roberto Carlos looked on, the Spaniard a Dubai resident for some time now, the Brazilian a Madrid ambassador, looking dapper in a dark suit, armed with a microphone, doing his bit for Real Madrid TV.
With 24 trophies for Madrid between them, they form an obvious link to the club’s celebrated recent past.
Fellow Galactico Zinedine Zidane serves as a rather renowned bridge to the now.
Madrid’s manager at present, he put the club's current crop through their paces, prepared to let his assistants bark instructions or tend to players’ needs.
When he enjoyed a particular piece of skill, such as when Cristiano Ronaldo nutmegged a teammate, Zidane clapped his approval. Presumably, he has countless victims from his playing days.
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As expected, Ronaldo represented the star attraction. Only a few days previously, the Portuguese was awarded a fifth Ballon d’Or. Wearing gold boots – standard – almost his every move was followed by the crowd, nearly every touch of the ball cheered.
In a quick game of keep ball, he featured for the group without bibs, alongside Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Marcelo and Marco Asensio.
Some fives team, that. With the quintet working together, who needs a goalkeeper anyway? To be fair, the other lot were not half bad either, and included Sergio Ramos, Isco, Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos.
At the end, as the players sauntered off, Ronaldo acknowledged the frenzy in the stands, clapping and waving to his audience. Ramos did also. Marcelo made a heart sign with his hands.
The sentiment was reciprocated: clearly, Abu Dhabi loves Real Madrid, too.
Updated: December 11, 2017 11:03 PM