UAE fans hold up scarves during Tuesday night's World Cup qualifying match agains Saudi Arabia at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Satish Kumar / The National / March 29, 2016
UAE fans hold up scarves during Tuesday night's World Cup qualifying match agains Saudi Arabia at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Satish Kumar / The National / March 29, 2016

UAE in World Cup qualifying: Rocking Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium was awesome

Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium has been host to just about all kinds of football in my two-and-a-half years in the UAE.

I have seen Arabian Gulf League and Asian Champions League matches at the cavernous venue. Under-17 World Cup games and Asian Cup qualifying ties. Even a Manchester City training session once, made open for the public during the team's 2013/14 Premier League title tour.

And whether domestic or continental competition, international or exhibition, most of the listed-capacity 42,056 red, white-and-black striped stadium’s seats usually sit empty.

Which is understandable enough. The weather is a hard sell for much of the year. There is only so much of an audience to be drawn for many domestic matches. Various international events that roll through are sometimes obscurely promoted or otherwise dealing with an interest ceiling.

Read more: Mahdi Ali tasks UAE to 'prepare better' in critical next stage of World Cup march

Also see: UAE keep up World Cup charge against Saudi Arabia in Abu Dhabi – in pictures

And watch: UAE football fans celebrate goal at World Cup qualifying match against Saudi Arabia – video

But on Tuesday night, none of those factors were in play for once, and the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium really was something to witness.

A crowd of 32,000-plus loud, enthusiastic fans, heavily interested and heavily invested – giving the match the feeling that it was big. Overwhelmingly local, they formed a cacophonous sea of white and made it feel like the eyes of the nation indeed were transfixed on that little slice of Muroor Road in the capital.

There were queues outside before the game. There was traffic on the roads around the stadium. There was buzz.

Real, honest-to-goodness, something-is-happening-here buzz.

It undulated throughout the building at kick-off, anticipation and anxiousness and excitement and all the conflicting emotions swirling in the air that give the act of attending a live sporting event its infectiousness.

It was all there, in the drums and in the trumpets and in the sing-song voices that arose, with regularity, as the soundtrack to proceedings.

Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium was full, fuller feeling even than the announced 32,000, and pulsating.

The UAE team seemed to thrive on it, too.

They dominated possession, showed more invention and intent in attack, produced the better chances. But for a few errant inches on a couple of their best shots and an Achilles-like weakness to a swift Saudi counterattack, they would have won the contest handily.

As it was, they did not need to win the contest. They advanced with a 1-1 draw anyway, to the third round of Asian qualifying for Russia 2018, where the UAE will be on the precipice of just their second World Cup trip, what would be the first in nearly 30 years.

Hopefully, the stakes of those matches – five at home during the next six-team, two-group stage beginning in September – maintain that atmosphere at the MBZ.

For one, it seems to genuinely help the team.

They thrived in the significance of the moment at the Asian Cup last January, reaching the semi-finals. By contrast, in a sleepy match in a near-empty stadium in Kuala Lumpur against lowly East Timor in this qualifying stage, they barely eked out a 1-0 win.

And for another, it was simply fun. The place was rocking, in a way I’ve not seen it before.

It was befitting the stadium, befitting this city, befitting this country.

It would be a welcome sight again.

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