Sport

President's Cup: Welcome back, fans, our 12th man!

President's Cup: Welcome back, fans, our 12th man!

It was fitting that, after more than a year, where the world got entwined in a web and went into a spiral because of a pandemic the human race had never seen before, the President’s Cup final brought a sense of normalcy to UAE’s favourite sport — football.

Not that the UAE had not hosted top class sporting events behind closed doors in the interim, and the UAE Warriors – the local mixed martial arts promotion — where only Covid-19 vaccinated spectators could attend. But the prestigious football tournament marked a vital ingredient — the fan at a footballing arena.

When fierce Dubai rivals Shabab Al Ahli and Al Nasr squared off in the final of one of the oldest competitions in this part of the woods, it marked a watershed moment in UAE sport, amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Fans are what make sports, especially football, and without them, it feels empty. And on Sunday night, at an iconic venue that could rival some of the best and most intimidating cauldrons in the world — the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium — that dedicated and loyal fan — the 12th man, made a return after a year and two months.

The UAE Football Association (UAEFA), the governing body for football in the country, in coordination with the National Crisis and Emergency Management Authority (NCEMA), had announced on April 27 that fans will be allowed back into stadium at a maximum of 30 percent capacity, while taking all precautionary measures into consideration.

Only vaccinated fans were able to witness the match and they had to provide a negative PCR test result and show the status of gold star or ‘E’ on the ALHOSN UAE app. The test had to be done in the last 48 hours ahead of the match.

The last time fans were allowed in the stadiums was last year when the Arabian Gulf League, the UAE’s top flight, had come to a halt after Round 19 on March 14, due to the pandemic.

The UAE had begun the vaccination drive last December.

Sheikh Rashid bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, the president of the UAEFA, who arrived at the stadium prior to the 7.35 p.m kick-off, said that this could possibly pave the way forward for the return of fans into the stadiums for the next stage of the joint 2022 World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers that will be hosted by the UAE.

“I wish to thank all the authorities for their efforts in making this happen,” said Sheikh Rashid bin Humaid Al Nuaimi.

“A message to fans, fans will decide if we continue with fans in the stadium. Their conduct will decide on the future of fans attendance,” he added, before making his way into Al Ain’s fortress, nestled in the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s favourite garden city.

Earlier this year, UAE Warriors was able to successfully host a safe and secure event with Covid-19 vaccinated audience in attendance. On January 15, UAE Warriors 15, in commemoration of Abdulmanap Nurmagedov, the father of UFC’s former star Khabib, took place at the Jiu-Jitsu Arena in Abu Dhabi.

Fouad Darwish, general manager, UAE Warriors, underlined that vaccination has paved the way for the return of fans to sports venues.

“We hosted the very first event to have the public in attendance. It was held under strict stipulations where you need to have the Covid-19 vaccination and a RT-PCR test with 24 hours validity,” said Darwish.

Khalfan Al Suwaidi, head of the Community and Mass Communication Council at Al Nasr club, told Khaleej Times, prior to kick-off that fans were starved of footballing action in the flesh and were thrilled to return to the stadium.

“We are very excited to be back to support our team from the stadium. It’s something we missed, but we do anything to comply with preventive measures set by our wise leadership,” Al Suwaidi told the Khaleej Times.

Win or lose, two fans from either side summed it up perfectly. “We like our team to win, but if we lose, the Cup is still in Dubai and we are happy anyway because we finally could watch a game from the stadium.”