DUBAI // With the Burj al Arab nearby and the Atlantis hotel on the horizon, the view from Umm Suqeim beach is one of Dubai's best. Now it also forms one of the most impressive backdrops of any football stadium in the world.
Over the past few weeks, the tranquil beachfront, popular with swimmers and sunbathers, has been transformed into a 6,000-capacity beach soccer arena that, from November 16 to 23, will be bustling with players, officials, camera crews and fans from around the world as Dubai plays host to the Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup. The process of converting a beach into a venue for a world championship has taken only a fortnight, with the entire complex due to be completed by November 1. After levelling the sand, work began on the construction of the temporary stands, using the same technique employed at the Sevens rugby stadium.
The site is about 60 per cent complete and work has started on the lighting rigs, media facilities, VIP lounge and entertainment zone. The place is buzzing with scaffolders, sand rakers and Fifa officials keeping an eye on progress. According to Chris Lonnergan, project co-ordinator for site construction, nothing has been left to chance "All of the plans for the arena were agreed by Dubai Municipality prior to the start of construction. The stands all have to comply with British standards, to ensure they are safe and can hold a capacity crowd. Fifa even have specifications for the sand, down to its colour and consistency."
Alex Soriano, head of the Dubai office of Fifa Beach Soccer, said the location was perfect for the tournament and as a setting to promote tourism. "It is a beautiful location. The Burj hotel and the Palm are famous landmarks and will be enjoyed by the spectators but also all those watching on television across the world." Although the game will always be associated with Brazil, where it was invented, Mr Soriano said that with an abundance of space and support from the Dubai Sport Council and municipality the event would be bigger than ever.
"In previous events space has been limited by developments and crowded beaches. But in Dubai we have lots of space available and this means the arena is bigger than ever before. For the first time we can have two pitches, enabling us to host more games each day and offer spectators maximum value for money. "It won't be limited to football fans," he added, "and we hope families will come to enjoy the food and entertainment that will be provided."
Fifa is expecting 40,000 spectators over the course of the six-day tournament, which represents a significant logistical and organisational challenge for an area that generally caters for a handful of sunseekers. "We have worked closely with the RTA to ensure that people can access the site. There will be shuttle buses collecting visitors from key locations, such as shopping malls, and there will be directions from local Metro and bus stations.
A large parking area will be created in Umm Suqeim and shuttle buses will bring people to the arena." said Mr Soriano. "Our aim is that the tournament will leave a legacy by establishing beach soccer in the region. I hope young fans will be encouraged to take up the game and we have been working on developing a Middle East league to capitalise on local interest. Dubai is a multicultural city and I'm sure all teams will have their share of fans."
Beach soccer is a new but fast-expanding format, devised less than 20 years ago in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. High-profile former professional footballers such as Arthur "Zico" Coimbra and Eric Cantona have helped popularise it, and in 2005 the World Cup was staged for the first time in Rio. Since then it has been exported to Marseille, and now Dubai. The combination of sun and sand, along with the game's reputation for frenetic matches and acrobatic action, has attracted a considerable international following, and with Dubai being home to more than 200 nationalities, there is a good chance of local support for all the competing teams.
Salah Tahlak, the tournament's director, said the event would be a catalyst for the sport's development in the region and could result in it being included as one of the sports taught in schools. "We have begun negotiations with the Ministry of Education to see beach soccer played in schools and included on the curriculum," he said. Local tournaments had been held during Ramadan and several players spotted by the national team coach had been added to the squad.
With 16 teams taking part, the hosts will be desperate to make an impression and even use home advantage to secure a surprise victory. Their Brazilian coach, Marcello Mendes, has been bullish, insisting that his team, which recently scored a shock victory over Brazil in Rio, will reach at least the quarter-finals. The team is now a month into its training for the event. email@example.com