DUBAI //He did not quite fly in through the window of the Burj Al Arab's 27th floor, but he did seem to magically appear from nowhere. Yesterday, in a plush ballroom close to the top of the world's only seven-star hotel, local organisers unveiled a furry falcon that will become increasingly familiar as the UAE's Fifa Under 17 World Cup approaches.
Following a short, untranslated speech in Arabic by the emcee and an unscripted, off-the cuff-of-a-dishdasha interview with the Emirates' football golden boy Omar Abdulrahman, two large, branded Fifa panels separated to reveal Shaqran, a two-metre tall colourfully clad mascot.
According to the organising committee, Shaqran (pronounced Shag-ran in the Emirati dialect) is a colloquial term for a blonde falcon and is synonymous with the country's heritage and tradition.
"Falcons are a potent symbol of our nation and represent great strength and determination, two qualities present in all 24 qualifying teams for this tournament," Mohammed Abdulla bin Bdoua, the tournament director, said.
The three-week tournament will run from October 17 to November 8 and feature 52 matches across six venues in five emirates. The objective of Shaqran throughout the coming months is to build momentum and bring the attention of people - particularly children - to the competition.
Inaki Alvarez, Fifa's deputy director of competitions, said he is "optimistic" stadiums will be full, although was quick to push the fact the tournament will be "as much a TV event as it is a spectator event". It will be broadcast to 190 territories around the world.
Alvarez said they are helping the Local Organising Committee, "but at the end of the day, the UAE people must want to go to the stadiums and be a part of this event. There is a job to be done to show the people there is value there and a reason to go."
Alvarez added that while stadium redevelopments are on track and should meet their June delivery deadlines, the process is at a crucial juncture because of the looming Holy Month.
"Right now, we have to get the construction work going and finished," he said. "This is a critical time for us before Ramadan, because after Ramadan will be the draw and then the team delegates will be coming. We need to stay focused. A lot of progress has been made, but I don't want to remove the urgency."