Saturday, August 22, 2015


Can The Arabian Gulf League Attract Expat Fans?

The National is an English language newspaper based in the UAE that produces excellent coverage of the local Arabian Gulf League. Amid the usual pre season previews they have had an article or two about how to entice some of the expats based in the country to games, a noble desire of course.

When I lived in Australia back in the late 80s early 90s I used to follow St George over land and sea as well as to Wollongong. My German interlude saw me attend games at different stadiums while I knew of one lad who would never miss a Fortuna Koln game unless he was laid up somewhere from too much elbow bending.

Then I moved to Asia. Football of course wasn't invented in Thailand until 2009 but the Premier League is perhaps the one league that does boast a significant number of expats watching games. A fair few residents, drunks, resident drunks and drunk residents follow and or followed Pattaya United for a while plus of course there is the granddaddy of them all Chonburi Dale who started following his local team when they first formed and went for years without missing a game home or away until the league rather inconveniently became more national and travel times became longer.

Interestingly enough some of those who 'fell in love' with Thai football when it increased in popularity have since fallen out of love with it. But go to places like Port and Bangkok Glass and you can be tripping over expats sipping their beer and calling the gammagarn a kwai.

Such is the popularity in Thailand a whole cottage industry has built up with converts producing blogs and going on to carve a niche for themselves writing about the game they love.

Indonesia? Without wanting to blow one's trumpet I can't think of many other expats who regularly attend games there, a nod to the lad in Samarinda, though I hope to have people prove that comment wrong! But even now when I go to games there, well when they used to have games there, people would ask me if I was a coach or a scout! Malaysia? Singapore? Well, I can think of one lad who follows Geylang International and indeed there is someone based in Jakarta who has a soft spot for the Eagles as well.

So why has Thailand managed to attract so many expat football fans and is there anything the Arabian Gulf League can learn from the land of smiles?

In some ways I think the obverse is true and it is Thailand who can learn from the UAE. As mentioned at the start of the piece there is good newspaper coverage of the local league. In addition the AGL website ain't that bad and is regularly both Arabic and English. And many clubs have their own bi lingual websites so English language information is readily available and quickly disseminated. In Thailand that void is filled by fans who learn the Thai script to keep ahead of the game and ensure the news gets out in a timely manner.

Football matches in Thailand are like tail gate parties. There is plenty of food and drink available and there is much to keep fans amused both before and after the game. The UAE? Well, at the game yesterday I saw between Al Shabab and Sharjah I did see some fans nibbling away at what looked like birdseed but I have no idea where they got it from as I couldn't see any food or drink stalls around the main stand.

And when you have 6pm kick offs you need a regular flow of liquid. Fair play to the players on the pitch, it was noticeable the game improved markedly as the temperature dropped, but sat in the main stand I was sweating buckets each time I breathed. Sweating is good, sweating is healthy but so is drinking but while I was offered the opportunity to sweat all I want there was nowhere to buy a drink.

At one stage in the second half some bloke did start dishing out small plastic ups of waters to fans around me...not to me but to everyone around me. 

You may recall earlier I mentioned expat fans at Thai games drinking beer. Sorry but for many football fans having a beer or two is an essential part of the match experience. Now I appreciate the UAE's reputation as a tolerant country, one reason I like Oud Metha with its mix of social clubs and schools and restaurants cheek by jowl. While I understand the sale of alcholic beverages is a no no surely some soft drinks and snacks can be made available on match day? Kebabs, shwarma etc.

There is one other reason perhaps why the UAE will struggle to get numbers of expat fans watching games in the way Thailand does and that is the demographic make up of the expat community. You can't go for a walk anywhere in Thailand these days without falling over English teachers. And they are the ones with the time and the money and the passion to get out and go to games. Hugely unscientific I know but I get the impression the UAE doesn't attract large numbers of itinerant young people attracted by the prospect of teaching English for a few years.

Like I said before, I believe some of the building blocks to attracting expat interest in the AGL are already in place; coverage from the paper is excellent and consistent. As I sat in a pub before heading to Al Shabab it didn't strike me many would leave their air conditioned comfort to head to an unknown part of town just to sweat and watch a game of football in difficult conditions. And if they knew no refreshments were available then a call to join me in the taxi would have gone unheeded.

Mind you, I fear my experiences yesterday would also go someway towards nipping any nascent interest in the bud. Why the big no no over taking pictures inside a stadium? Travelling football fans love this sort of stuff...arbitrarily banning cameras, especially on football fans who have travelled long distances just to experience the local football scene, will encourage no one to leave the bar and take a seat in the stand.

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