Aref Al Awani has said "every game is a big game" at the Fifa Club World Cup and will be a good barometer of the Local Organising Committee's preparations for the 2019 Asian Cup to be held in the UAE next month.
The 15th staging of the Club World Cup features winners of the clubs from each of the six continental confederations as well as the national league champions of the host nation. River Plate were the final team to punch their ticket to Abu Dhabi, beating Boca Juniors 5-3 on aggregate in the Copa Libertadores final on Sunday. They join UAE champions Al Ain, Real Madrid, Guadalajara, Kashima Antlers, Esperance de Tunis and Team Wellington.
The Club World Cup kicks off with Al Ain taking on New Zealand’s Team Wellington, winners of the Oceania Champions League, in the play-off at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Wednesday.
Al Awani, general secretary of Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC) and the LOC’s executive director of both the Club World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup, is confident of a sell-out at every game.
"Every game is a big game in the Club World Cup, and we know that for sure," Al Awani told The National.
“The first game is a sell-out and assuming Al Ain qualify to play the African champions [Esperance], it will be another full house.”
The Asian Cup will be held in the Emirates for only the second time next month. Al Awani believes hosting the Club World Cup only weeks before the Asian Cup, which runs from January 5-February 1, will allow the LOC to fine-tune safety arrangements for the continental showpiece, which this year has been expanded to a record 24 teams.
“It’s an opportunity to tests the months of work that has gone in to hosting the Asian Cup,” he said.
“The first two staging of the Club World Cup was in Abu Dhabi [2009 and 2010] and the experience of hosting it in two cities last year has helped us make further improvements to the existing arrangements.
“The Asian Cup is returning to the country after 22 years and expanded to 24 teams for the first time in the history of the competition. The matches will be staged in four cities in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai and Sharjah.
“In terms of the seating arrangements, we have done a few modifications on the recommendations of our Civil Defence on the spectators’ safety. We have removed some of the seats to create more walking space between the rows of seats. Safety has always been our priority of our Government.”
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The first four games of the Club World Cup will be played in Al Ain with the semi-finals, third place play-off and the final taking place at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi on December 22.
Al Awani said a trial run for security and safety arrangements was conducted during November's Sudan Super Cup match between Al Hilal and Al Merreikh at the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
“This game had more than 40,000 ... and it provided us an opportunity to test the stadiums with the safety and security arrangements, including the medics and ambulances,” he said.
Al Awani's first experience of a major tournament was the 1996 Asian Cup when it was first staged in the UAE.
He has previously held positions at Etisalat, Emirates Transport Department and Abu Dhabi Media, before joining ADSC when it was established in 2008. He was made general secretary of the ADSC in 2014.
Convincing organisers to stage the 2017 Club World Cup in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi was not without its challenges, Al Awani said, especially since the UAE's representatives, Al Jazira, would not play any matches at their own stadium.
“It took a lot of time to convince them; it was an instant success," he said. "The Hazza bin Zayed Stadium was the newest state-of-the art football venue in the Middle East but the event management of the CWC wasn’t convinced.
“They wanted a 45,000-capacity stadium for the first game when Hazza bin Zayed Stadium could accommodate only 25,000. Our logic was based on the local knowledge [that] it was better to have a 25,000 stadium full than a half-full 45,000 stadium. It turned out to be a big success, and it’s going to be even better [this year] as Al Ain are the home team.”