Bahraini football fans are gearing up for what may be the friendliest game of the tournament, as they prepare for the opening match of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup with the Emirates on Saturday.
Hesham Mattar and ten of his Bahraini friends have already started preparing their flags and shirts. While they don’t expect Bahrain to win the cup, they are enthusiastic to show their support.
“I am really excited and we hope we will win, but we also want the UAE to do well,” said the 28-year-old actuary, who has lived in the UAE for two-and-a-half years.
“When I lived in Bahrain, I used to watch our team play there, but this is the first time I will attend a match in the UAE.”
Mr Mattar will also be joined at the match by a number of non-Bahraini friends who used to live in the country, but now live in Dubai. The group plan to attend all of Bahrain’s matches, the next one being scheduled for January 10 at Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai.
“I don’t think we can win the cup, but if we can qualify out of the group that will be a big achievement,” he said.
If Bahrain is knocked out of the cup, Mr Mattar said he will cheer on other GCC teams. His friend, Bahraini Talal Al Sharif, said he was particularly excited about the match because it is part of the “biggest football competition in Asia”.
“The fact that it is so big is exciting, particularly for Bahrain because we have never won it and we have never qualified for the World Cup. Every year is a hopeful year,” said the 25-year-old account manager.
Bahrain’s best performance in the AFC Asian Cup was in 2004 when they narrowly lost to Japan 4-3 in the quarter finals, and then lost to Iran in the third place play off, finishing fourth.
“Playing against another Gulf country is considered a big game for any Gulf national who follows football.”
Mr Al Sharif said he does not expect Bahrain to last for long in the cup, but participating in the tournament will be good practice for a new young team.
“For the past couple of years Bahrain has been going through quite a big transition, particularly because a lot of senior players have retired."
In Argentina, football rivalries were recently thrown into the spotlight by the double postponement of the historic Copa Libertadores final between Buenos Aires arch rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors due to fan trouble. Russia and the UK have also experienced rising tensions between fans.
Yet in the UAE, rivalries are friendlier, and allegiances are not as clear cut for everyone.
In fact, Mohammed Al Balooshi, whose father is Emirati and mother Bahraini, said he could not be more confused about who to cheer for.
“The problem is [the two countries] are one nation — how can I choose one over the other? I am lost,” said the 25-year-old fitness coach.
“My blood is Bahraini and my heart is Emirati, so I will have to cheer for both.”
In an arguably uncommon move for a football fan, he said his solution could be to wear a UAE shirt for the match, as well as a Bahraini scarf.
“Whichever team scores, I will cheer with them,” he said.
He plans to attend the match with a friend who will be cheering for the UAE.
The last time he attended a football match was when Bahrain hosted the Gulf Cup in 2013.
“The UAE won the final and I was happy and felt satisfied, so did not feel the urge to follow football after that," he said.
“However, now that both my teams are playing against one another, I feel the urge to follow the match,” he said.
The Asian Cup runs from January 5 to February 1 at venues across the country.