Football Association hopes cup final can spark fans' return at UAE's 2022 World Cup qualifiers

Spectators will be allowed at next month’s President’s Cup title clash

United Arab Emirates' forward Ali Mabkhout celebrates his opening goal during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup quarter-final football match between UAE and Australia at Hazaa bin Zayed Stadium in Al-Ain on January 25, 2019.  / AFP / Giuseppe CACACE
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The Football Association hopes the return of fans at next month’s President’s Cup final will kickstart attendance at all professional matches in the country – including the upcoming 2022 World Cup qualifiers.

The governing body announced on Tuesday that a limited number of spectators shall be permitted to attend UAE football’s showpiece event on May 16, with the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain to be open up to 30 per cent capacity.

The final, contested by Shabab Al Ahli and Al Nasr, is open only to those who have been fully vaccinated and who have returned a negative PCR test within 48 hours of kick-off.

Fans last attended football matches in the Emirates in February last year, during Round 17 of the 2019/20 Arabian Gulf League, as measures were taken to restrict the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

The FA decided to allow spectators after consultation with the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority.

"It's a massive decision," Mohammed Hazzam Al Dhaheri, the FA general secretary, told The National.

“It’s not easy to come back in this period of time, but of course this is made possible only because of the relevant authorities and our leadership, how they have managed the pandemic in an excellent manner. It allowed us to reach the solution at this moment.

“As the FA, we were always ready, but we needed the sign from the relevant authorities, the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority, who worked closely with us at every step.

“All of this added up to this moment in which we’ve decided to have the fans back. And this very important occasion will then be evaluated; if everything works well, we will move to the second level, which is fans for the World Cup qualification, and then back to the [Arabian Gulf League] and our other competitions.”

World Cup qualifying resumes in June having been postponed repeatedly because of the pandemic. Last month, the UAE won the right to host all outstanding Group G matches in Dubai, including the national team’s four remaining fixtures.

The return of fans for those games, to take place at the Zabeel Stadium and Al Maktoum Stadium, would represent a huge boost to the country’s chances of turning around their campaign.

The UAE sit fourth in the group, five points off the summit although they have played a game less than their rivals. They restart their quest to make the third round of qualification against Malaysia on June 3. Only the top teams are guaranteed to advance.

Al Dhaheri said the incredibly high vaccination rate in the UAE, and the relatively low number of daily cases, helped form the decision to bring back fans, while also citing the prestige of the President’s Cup.

“This is the most precious competition we have in football in the UAE, so it deserves to have fans back,” he said. “And it’s the last match of the current season. So it was an exceptional case for the FA to have this match and assess the situation, with the view that this will kick off having fans for the rest of the matches.

“I have always said the fans are the clear No 1 on the field and we’re always happy to have them back. Without fans, you can see that the stadiums are almost dead. We want them back; we don’t want to listen any more to the artificial fan noise through our TVs.

“We want them back, to have them support our teams and our national teams. That makes us happy. We’re all working hard – us as the FA, the clubs, the players – it’s for the fans. So they deserve it.”

To attend the final, spectators must show messages on the Al Hosn app displaying "Received the Covid-19 vaccine” and the letter "E". The match is open also to those who have obtained a "star" from clinical trials.

Al Dhaheri said more details regarding attendance for the final will be released next week, including ticket news, the number of fans permitted, and the kick-off time.