The rise of English Premier League supporters in the United Arab Emirates has been predictably due to the purchase of the ‘other’, blue side of Manchester. Formerly a club with a couple of English First Division titles in the early 20th century, Manchester City have come up through the ranks as a force in football establishing themselves as one of the most dangerous teams in England under Roberto Mancini and now Manuel Pellegrini. Most if not all of this, is credited to the ADUG (Abu Dhabi United Group), the group that purchased a 90% stake in the Sky Blues’ team back in 2008.
This along with their large investment has not only seen a rise in the English fan-base for Manchester City but also the Middle Eastern fan-base for the English league in general, mainly in the United Arab Emirates, home to Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and the owner of ADUG, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Manchester City is the dawn of a ‘foreign local club’ for the Emiratis here, who support the club as if it is in fact one of their own. The loyalty towards their country has been shown countless times and say, Ali Mabkhout, makes a move to Hamburg then it would be of no surprise to see the shirt sales for the German club significantly rise from the Middle East. These Emirati football fans have abandoned supporting previous clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid to support what they class as their home team, with this being proven a week after the purchase of Manchester City from ADUG. The Citizens’ shirts were being requested online all across the Middle East before they even hit the market which led to online orders of the kits triple from the region. I look at what makes the club so popular here, besides being owned by fellow Emiratis.
Domestic League Football: ‘If there is no Premier League on, let’s go and watch local football – e.g. Al-Ain’
The Arabian Gulf League (not to be mistaken as a super league for the Gulf, but the top tier league in the United Arab Emirates) has an average attendance of 10,500 fans per game – there are 181 games played in the Gulf League – and that has been improving ever since the inception of the professional league in 2008-09. But, the figure is still poor as it equates to 28.5% of fans attending games on average, a number still looked at in disappointment by league officials in the country.
The team which had the best attendance the whole year was Al-Ahli and they could only fill up an average of 46% attending the home games for the whole season, 4,370 being the average fans per match in their 9,500-seater stadium. With there being no sellouts in the league either bar a single game (at Al-Ahli’s Rashid stadium), there was definitely something wrong with the attendances.
The conversation among Emirati fans usually tend to be, “Al-Ain vs. Al-Nasr? I’d rather watch Manchester City and Stoke City”. This cannot be said about all Emirati fans but there is a large group of ‘culprits’ moving themselves towards the blue side of England rather than, say, the blue side of the UAE (Al-Nasr).
Will this ever change? Modern day fans are looking more for quality rather than passion towards their local club. What is the point of shifting your support to a club that wins? These things lead to lessened interest in the team as you know they’ll most probably win and worst of all, no connection existing between the team and the fan. Supporting your team at the stadium, singing with your friends and watching your team play is what football is all about. You can still watch quality football, as most of the time the schedule of the domestic league games do not conflict with that of the Premier League nor the Champions League.
But it would be interesting to see what happens when ADUG decide to sell their stake in Manchester City?