His Excellency Mohamed Khalfan Al Romaithi
Over the last month the UAE has been a focal point for the eyes and attention of millions of football fans across Asia and the wider world as it played host to the AFC Asia Cup 2019. Throughout January more than 370,000 spectators filled eight stadiums across the country as a record 24 teams battled it out to be crowned the winners.
His Excellency Mohamed Khalfan Al Romaithi, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council’s board of directors and head of the UAE General Authority of Sports, was instrumental in bringing the Asia Cup to the UAE, and he had a prime spot to watch the nail-biting matches as well as ensure the country’s investment was paying off. “It’s the biggest tournament in Asia; the Jewel of the AFC,” he admits. “The millions that watch it at home, they see our stadiums, our city—it’s a good way to promote the UAE as a sport destination.”
Nearly $110 million was spent in renovating the stadiums for the tournament. The first time the UAE hosted the event, in 1996, there were only eight teams and the UAE did not yet have the mega-stadiums to attract big crowds. “This time we have two stadiums in Abu Dhabi with capacity of over 40,000 and one in Al Ain that seats 25,000,” says Al Romaithi.
And despite reports of few women in the stands at the 2019 competition, according to the chairman, as more people become interested, the gender dynamics of the fans coming to watch is changing. “Although we have seen women in our stadium in the past, it cannot be compared to what we saw this time,” he reveals. “Earlier woman and families would have their own part of the stadium, now they are all around.”
Participation and attendance at the country’s football matches are expected to continue to pick up—for both men and women—as the UAE pumps more investment into developing its sporting infrastructure and hosting world-class sporting events. And private companies are becoming ever more important in supporting the country’s budding football prowess.
“In the 70s and 80s [football] was purely supported by the government, then marketing started and private companies started to support,” says Al Romaithi. Investments are now being made across the youth league, B and C divisions. The UAE today has 5,000 registered football players and 33 football clubs—of these, 26 clubs have youth teams that participate in tournaments for children aged eight years old and over. “We know that the secret to success in football is starting from a young age,” Al Romaithi admits. And the UAE youth teams are proving their talents, qualifying for the Under 17 World Cup in 2009 and 2013, and for the Under 20 World Cup in 1997 and 2003.
It’s not just football winning fans and investment. Al Romaithi has helped to put together a packed calendar of sporting events in 2019, including the European tour golf tournament and the Dubai Duty Free tennis tournament. But it’s the Special Olympics World Games 2019, due to be held in Abu Dhabi in March that is this year’s crowning glory. “It is a very emotional issue for the UAE,” reveals the chairman. This year will be the first time that the Special Olympics World Games will be held in MENA since the competition was founded over 51 years ago. Held under the Patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, 7,000 athletes from over 170 countries will be coming to compete in the sports.
Al Romaithi has been involved with the administration of football in the UAE since the country was formed, serving the board of Al Ain Football club—the most successful football club in the UAE—and sitting on various AFC committees. He played for Al Ain FC in his youth and was chairman of the club from 2001-2005. Al-Romaithi transformed the club, leading it to three domestic titles, a President’s Cup and an AFC Champions League title. He also served as the president of the UAE Football Association between 2004 and 2009, and was the Vice Chairman of the General Authority of Youth and Sports Welfare in 2006.
“I think what we have achieved with the small number of players in our football association is satisfactory,” he says. But satisfactory does not win a tournament. With Al Romaithi at the helm, the UAE could one day be raising a cup of its own.