The reputation of Argentinian football has taken a battering recently because of fan violence, but River Plate supporters in Al Ain on Tuesday for the Club World Cup semi-final presented a different picture.
There was little sign of trouble at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium and the heavy Abu Dhabi Police presence was untroubled by supporters.
“These are not like the hooligans you find in Europe,” said Emiliano Olivetti, 21, who is training to be a lawyer, said of the violent fans who have caused trouble at recent matches. “They are like a mafia, a cartel of rogues.”
Mr Olivetti booked his tickets for the Club World Cup from Real Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium, having travelled from Buenos Aires to see River win the Copa Libertadores against rivals Boca Juniors.
The match was moved 9,600 kilometres from both club’s home city after crowd violence in which some Boca players were injured after a brick was thrown at their bus.
“In Madrid, there were a lot of football fans who spoke to us,” Mr Olivetti said. “They said what happened was shocking and some people were scared. But we made lots of friends and there were no problems. We were at peace with the Boca fans.
“In the UAE, we were in a mall and some people said to us, ‘Don’t throw rocks at us’. They were just joking but it’s something you don’t want to hear.
“Why it has to be like it is in Buenos Aires, I don’t know. They don’t fight for the clubs. Within the clubs they have a lot of different factions who fight within themselves for power. It’s not about football, it’s about money and organised crime.”
River take on Al Ain this evening in a game they are expected to win. A victory would set up a final with Real Madrid in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, if the Spanish side win their semi-final today.
The tournament, in the UAE for the second year in a row, is more important in South America than it is in Europe, Mr Olivetti said.
“For European fans, it’s just a little cup,” he said. “For us it’s bigger, with the possibility to travel outside your country to meet the best team of Europe.
“It’s a great opportunity, a heroic thing. Nothing will be better than beating Boca in the Libertadores but this is still very important for us.”
His attitude explains why thousands of River fans are expected in the UAE, despite the short notice and expense. The game against Boca in Madrid took place less than a fortnight ago, with many flying direct on to Dubai or Abu Dhabi from the game.
Matias Costas, from Lanus, just south of Buenos Aires, went to the final in Madrid and had planned to return home whatever the result.
But after the win he and his friend, Federico Gaido, 26, decided they could not miss out on the trip to the UAE. It is only because they both work for their family businesses that they will still have jobs when they finally return home, Mr Costas said.
They expect 5,000 River fans to make the trip.
“It was the biggest match in the history of both clubs, maybe the history of football,” Mr Costas, 26, said of the Boca clash.
He said it was unfortunate that players were injured in Buenos Aires and that the team bus should have had more protection from authorities.
“In Madrid, it was safe and the police were well organised,” Mr Costas said. “In Buenos Aires, it was like 10,000 people without a ticket trying to get in. It was uncontrollable.
“It’s a group mentality that takes over. Trying to eradicate that, you have to eradicate the hooligans and I don’t know if it is possible.”
Nadia Lelczuk, 36, an antiques dealer who lives in Buenos Aires, travelled to Abu Dhabi with her husband, Pedro Hallak, 52, an architect and a River fanatic.
Ms Lelczuk said she had been put off travelling to Madrid by the crowd trouble in Argentina, but decided to take the opportunity to spend Christmas in Dubai after supporting her team.
“Winning here would be the strawberry on the top of the cake,” she said. “The trouble in Buenos Aires was a shame. It’s very sad and there’s no logic to it.
“But here it will just be good fun and all we want to do is support our team.”