AL AIN // Twenty-five thousand fans packed into the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Thursday night as the newly crowned Premier League champions Manchester City took on Al Ain.
The friendly was to officially inaugurate the Garden City side’s new home and, although fans were there to watch the visiting English champions, most wore the white and purple of one of the UAE’s most decorated clubs.
“I’ve been a Man City supporter since Abu Dhabi bought the team, but I have supported Al Ain since I was born,” said Mohammed Al Bloushi, 15.
The Emirati said he had been going to his team’s games since he was a child and was impressed with the new stadium.
“It’s beautiful. Everything about is better than the old stadium – the size, the services, the technology,” said Mohammed.
Sharaf Alrjoob, 13, from Al Ain, said he was excited to see his favourite English team but would cheer his hometown team all the way.
“I think, and hope, they will win 3-0 today,” he said.
Sadly for Sharaf, it was the visitors who won by that scoreline.
But he said the stadium was simply “awesome’.
“My father is an engineer and he said he wished he had worked on it,” Sharaf said.
It wasn’t just the home fans impressed by their new surroundings. Graham Brine, who arrived on Wednesday night from Manchester, has been a City supporter for 51 years and said Al Ain’s stadium was “special”.
“The stadium is special,” said the Manchester native who has been a season-ticket holder for Man City for 51 years.
“It’s a celebration of not only our winning the league but also the opening of this special stadium and gives me a chance to see the country where the owners are from.”
The lifelong City fan said the 1967-68 season, the last time City won the English top flight before Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bought the club in 2008, was the last time his team was nearly this good.
Graham said it was thanks to the investment from Sheikh Mansour, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, that they were back on top.
“The transformation has been amazing,” he said. “Sheikh Mansour has come in and has developed the team, the facilities and, most of all, been faithful to the team. It’s tremendous.
“I never thought it would happen because we were in the depths of despair not too long ago.”
Making a far shorter journey was Clara Morais, 25, of Portugal who drove in from Dubai to be a part of the spectacle.
“It’s an amazing event for Al Ain because you are bringing 25,000 people to the stadium in one night,” Clara said.
She said she was supporting Al Ain because some of her friends worked for the club.
“Everyone is expecting Manchester to win, but I would like to see Al Ain win,” Clara said.
The initial cheers were for a few Manchester City players warming up before the match, but a much louder roar echoed around the stadium when the home team ran out of the tunnel.
Once the whistle blew Al Ain stayed true to their Al Zaeem (The Boss) nickname and created a host of chances, with midfielder Mohamed Abdulrahman looking especially dangerous down the left.
Al Ain’s star player, the UAE playmaker Omar Abdulrahman, showed why he was a fan favourite linking up well with his teammates to create more goalscoring opportunities.
With the President’s Cup final against Al Ahli on Sunday in mind, Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic substituted several players around the 20-minute mark, as had been expected.
In keeping with the game’s “exhibition” tag, a host of household UAE football names made appearances, with Al Wahda’s Ismail Matar coming on in the first group of replacements.
Continued close calls around Manchester City’s goal caused Al Ain fans to jump to their feet. A Mexican wave around the sold-out arena broke out midway through the first 45 minutes.
The festive mood continued during half time with the home team taking a well deserved 0-0 tie into the break.
Mohammed Al Mansouri, 12, an Al Ain fan, said his team had played well in the first half and he could see them winning.
“They are playing well with our support and, inshallah, with more support they will do well,” Mohammed said.
But it was the visitors who broke the deadlock on the hour-mark as Marcos Lopes scored on a counter-attack. Stevan Jovetic and Jordi Hiwula added two more goals before the final whistle.
At the end of 90 minutes, both teams were handed honorary medals. Vincent Kompany, the City captain, raised the Premier League trophy as fireworks illuminated the sky to add to the night of celebrations.