Step into the dimly lit studio at Dubai Sports TV, and at first glance it appears a set of your typical television programme.
There’s the circular desk, with three seats stationed apart, arranged to encourage open conversation. There’s the two bulky broadcast TV cameras, one of which is manned by a man in kandora. Arching in an out of view is the crane camera, operated in the shadow, capturing those sweeping fade-in and fade-out shots that introduce and bid farewell to most studio shows.
There are teleprompters and a host; on-screen graphics and a guest, who changes weekly. Out of sight and almost out of earshot, too, is the director, sat in some room high above. Traces of instruction are audible almost even to those below not wearing an earpiece.
Yet the rotating logo on the giant background screen conveys that this is no typical television programme, at least in subject matter. It confirms that this is in fact, on a standard Wednesday afternoon in a darkened studio in Dubai, the coming together of years-long pitches and perseverance.
Welcome to “The UAE Football Show”, the first weekly English-language TV programme dedicated to Emirati football.
“I personally still can't quite believe it,” says Graham Clews, the TV and radio presenter and long-time Abu Dhabi resident, whom alongside Pedro Correia created and fronts the show. “We watched the first episode go out a few weeks ago and I was sat on the sofa and kept saying to my wife, ‘I just won't believe it until it's actually on the telly’. But finally I get to do this show.
“Whether it works or not and people embrace it - and the early indications are good - it's kind of out of our hands. But I've been banging on the door, Pedro has been banging on the door.
“And just between us, instead of one hand banging on the door, we had two and it seems to have opened. We’re just grabbing the opportunity and running with it. I just never thought it would happen, so I’m over the moon.”
Like Clews, Correia has been an erstwhile advocate for UAE football nearly from the moment he arrived in Dubai from Portugal in 2013. He worked originally as club licensing officer at Al Wasl, the decorated Adnoc Pro League side, before becoming a football consultant.
It was Correia who pushed for the launch of English commentary at all top-flight matches beginning three seasons ago – another first – and he now both organises the ever-expanding roster of commentators and mans the microphone on matchdays.
The night before filming this edition of 'The UAE Football Show', Correia had the devilish task of supplying the English vocals on back-to-back President’s Cup semi-finals.
Yet here he is, a little bleary eyed, but beaming with pride that an ambition that first took root almost a decade ago has, finally, come to fruition.
“Six months into being here I understood that English was the main working language of the country,” Correia says. “Of course, Arabic is the native language and that is very important, but English is the language that will in the end reach out to everyone in the country.
“So that made me think about the possibility of having both English commentary and English shows not only on TV, but also on radio and in newspapers; to cover football here in English in a 360 approach, let's say.
“And that's how it all started. Then, with pitch after pitch here and there, we managed to finally cross the line at Dubai Sports.
“We’ve had this break and we will try to do our best to achieve our goal. And the goal is very simple: to create a bridge between UAE football and the UAE football family, and football fans all over the UAE that want to join this family.
“Our aim is to get the football fans in the UAE to understand what's going on in UAE football, to showcase the best we have in the game here.”
Fortunately for Correia, he found a like mind in Clews. The Englishman contributes also to Adnoc Pro League commentary, something he stresses has been fundamental in getting the TV show off the ground.
The programme, a 60-minute offering that airs every Wednesday at 9pm, works around the English highlights of matches. It is why Dubai Sports made sense; the broadcaster has rights to the league, domestic cup competitions and also the UAE's international matches.
“My original idea when I started pitching it, and it turned out it was same as Pedro when we got together, was let's not try and reinvent the wheel here,” Clews says. “People just want to be able to see football on TV the way they’re used to seeing football on TV.
“It doesn't need to be flashy gadgets with weird or funny elements, or drones and expensive production values. People want to see the matches, listen to a quick chat about them from people who know and find out what it means. So it's the complete ‘Match of the Day’ package.”
Moving forward, Clews and Correia plan to expand the programme to include the lower leagues – expat teams compete principally at present in the third and fourth tier and represent an obvious target market – while they want to eventually have a live presence at matches, especially the major fixtures on the UAE calendar, such as cup finals or title deciders.
At some point, they hope to employ a reporter to travel around clubs and meet with key figures within the game, offering a behind-the-scenes view of what makes football in the Emirates tick.
“The sky's the limit for us,” Clews says. “But we're also quite realistic people. We're lucky at the moment that we've got the show on the air and we have big dreams, but we will take what this is at the moment and run with it.”
In-studio guests form a crucial component. In the first four episodes, the show has welcomed an established English journalist who has covered the league extensively, a Dubai-based Wasl “super fan” from Scotland, renowned Emirati commentator Abdullah Al Saadi, and a representative from the Football Association.
As the show progresses, the idea is to feature star players and managers from the Adnoc Pro League, supplying a platform for them to showcase their personalities and, ultimately, promote the game.
“This is going to benefit the football clubs as much as it benefits us,” Clews says. “As it's quite new, it's going to take a while for the clubs to embrace it. Perhaps they’re a bit nervous about sending their big stars onto what’s essentially a chat show, but I think when they realise this is a safe space, and that it only benefits everybody, then it'll be easier."
Correia, who through the years has built considerable connections with players and managers, agrees.
“This is an informative show; it is not so much of an analytical show like many others,” he says. “We have not got there yet. We are just starting, trying to establish ourselves. As Graham says, it’s a safe space and everyone is welcome to join.
“We mostly want to bring new audiences to UAE football and, with that, we will bring hopefully new fans to the clubs and, with that, we will hopefully help the clubs to bring new sponsors into the club and into the industry in general. That is our aim in the end.”
Clearly, collaboration with the game’s governing bodies, such as the Football Association and the Pro League Committee, will be key in the show delivering on its remit. Correia acknowledges that the main challenges in making it work include consistency and commitment, but for now, they are off to a strong start.
The theory goes that, in getting all major stakeholders involved, it should help capture the biggest audience and by consequence attract more fans to the league.
“I think the most important thing to highlight here is the fact that the show is on air now and that is amazing,” Correia says. “Of course, it comes after years of trying and trying, and, as Graham said, I was also very impressed when I finally saw it happen. Because, despite the fact that this is of course work and we are professionals, we deeply believe that this is important for the progress of the UAE football.
“Again, it's about UAE football, it's not about anything else. But it's very, very important to use the English language to communicate what we have here - the matches, the players, the coaches - to let everybody out there to know what's going on.
“The name of the show says it all: this is ‘The UAE Football Show’ and this is about UAE football. Graham, me, and English language, we are just vehicles to take it to people who do not understand the game, that don't speak Arabic.
“And the reason we brought Abdullah is precisely to let everyone understand that the central figure of the show is UAE football. Because this is an industry, but it's also a family.
“We have the utmost respect for what he has been done in Arabic throughout the years. Arabic is the native language of the country, so it's very important that we don't touch with one finger on that. We just deeply believe that we should add to the good and extensive Arabic coverage that is out there.”
Correia hopes the show will in turn convince more of the expat audience to attend matches. The overriding objective, he says, is to educate and to encourage.
“There are many misconceptions,” Correia says. “We talk with our friends about the league and they don't understand exactly what's going on. And it's important for people to understand because here we have an entertaining league. Of course, some matches are better than others, but overall it’s an entertaining league with great matches.
“It's a safe environment for you to attend. It's cheap, especially if you have in mind the entertainment prices when you talk about the UAE in general. And it's healthy: it's outside, you can come with your friends or with your families and enjoy an entertaining football match.
“So the target is mostly to inform and to let people know the reality and not the misconception that they might have - because before they never had the chance to really know what's going on.”
Clews, who writes the script and joins Correia at Dubai Sports every Tuesday for the pre-edit, shares the sentiment.
“Some matches are great, some matches are not so great, some matches are crazy and some not so exciting," he says. "It's the same as watching the Premier League or any other league.
“But this is right on your doorstep, it is next door to you, and it's everything you want if you go to the match. It’s a professional set-up, it's got the nightmare with VAR, the drama of time-added-on. It's got penalties and major incidents.
“With the show, everybody wants to go in the same direction. We hope it's a safe space. I can understand if there's a bit of nerves about what we're going to do, but I think already in just a few episodes we've shown that it's simply a love of UAE football.
“If you love football and you live in the UAE, why wouldn't you want to do it? Maybe you just decide to take the kids next Saturday and go to the stadium that's inevitably round the corner from wherever you're living now, and give it a go.
“And really we can't ask for more than that. It's not about our show being the biggest show on TV at all; it's about our show helping and, at some point down the line, people saying, ‘Well, The UAE Football Show actually really did help things. Thanks’. That would really be fantastic.”