Monday, February 15, 2010

Sunday night football, Abu Dhabi style

Two teams based just a few blocks apart, battling for first place in the national pro league, traffic jam outside the stadium, mounted police, helicopter buzzing overhead, drums beating, rabid fans cheering and chanting, and on the field a nail-biter to the finish.

Now that's more like it.

I had been to two soccer matches here, and each time came away unimpressed. Not by the level of play, but by the lack of energy and excitement. Much of that was due to small crowds (a couple of thousand) in a huge stadium (capacity 40,000), and uninspiring matchups on the field.

But last night, Al Jazira and Al Wahda, tied for first atop the tables, squared off in Al Wahda's cozy 12,000-seat stadium, and it was a doozy.

You could feel the buzz outside the stadium. People and cars and buses jockeying for position, a steady crowd moving toward the gates, the sound of drumbeats coming from inside. Tickets were 10 dirhams, but free for Al Jazira supporters – team officials handed them out, no charge, as we entered the visiting team stands. (My first two games were at Al Jazira, which plays two blocks from the office, so I consider them my team.)

Inside the stadium, as is customary for visiting fans, we were relegated to end-zone seating, well clear of the home crowd, which was probably a good thing. I don't understand Arabic, but it sounded like a whole lot of trash talking going on. Some of it was good-natured chanting back and forth; some of it came complete with hand gestures that would make a New York cabbie proud.

The crowd was close to 10,000 and sounded like a lot more, especially after Baiano, the Brazilian striker who bolted Al Jazira for Al Wahda this season, send the home crowd into a frenzy with a first-half goal. The Al Jazira section came back to life after a goal to even the score early in the second half, but the excitement was short-lived – just a minute later, Baiano put the home team back on top with a brilliant header.

It was then, as Al Wahda's players and fans celebrated, that this became a certified big-time sporting event. A kid in a dishdash and a maroon Al Wahda scarf ran onto the field, easily eluding a couple of out-of-shape cops as he scrambled to and fro, the crowd roaring. An Al Jazira player finally slowed him enough for the cops to catch up, and six burly policemen hustled him off the field as he grinned widely and flashed a V sign to his friends in the stands.

The game got a little chippy after that, as Al Jazira pushed aggressively for an equalizer. But it never came, and when the final whistle sounded the Al Jazira fans directed a few half-hearted insults toward the celebrating winners, then filed quietly out of the stadium.

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