Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Abu Dhabi hosts FIFA Club World Cup

By James Montague, CNN
  • Abu Dhabi to host its first FIFA Club World Cup
  • Barcelona will be joined by African and South American champions, among others
  • The tournament follows Abu Dhabi's recent successful F1 debut
  • Emirate keen to use sport to promote itself internationally
  • Abu Dhabi
  • Dubai World
  • FIFA
  • FC Barcelona

(CNN) -- Since its inception in 2000 the FIFA Club World Cup -- which pits club champions from the six world confederations against each other -- has been maligned by many, especially by European fans, players and coaches.

Falling in the middle of a congested fixture list during a crucial part of the season, the event -- that has traditionally been hosted by Japan -- was another logistical headache for European teams competing on many fronts.

This year, however, after winning a $5 million bidding war, the United Arab Emirates secured the rights to host the tournament in what is hoped will be a coup for the capital Abu Dhabi and a more accessible venue for Europe's big-hitting clubs.

"Abu Dhabi has realized that investing in sport is a great way to raise the city's profile on a global scale," explained Alex Kunawicz, sports content editor for The National, Abu Dhabi's government funded daily newspaper. "By the end of this year, Roger Federer, Lionel Messi, Jenson Button, Shahid Afridi and Sergio Garcia will have all competed in the city."

Abu Dhabi has realized that investing in sport is a great way to raise the city's profile on a global scale
--Alex Kunawicz, The National

Indeed, Messi's Barcelona will be joined by a host of international stars playing for the likes of Mexico's Atlante, Argentina's Estudiantes, DR Congo's TP Mazembe, South Korea's Pohang Steelers, New Zealand's Auckland City and Al Ahli, from the UAE. The winner will be crowned the world champions of club football.

Yet the tournament has a far larger significance beyond the sport. It is also the latest in a long line of prestige sporting projects events the UAE, and especially Abu Dhabi, has hosted in recent years.

Last month Abu Dhabi hosted its first Formula One grand prix at its state-of-the-art Yas Marina Circuit. This year has also seen high-profile cricket, tennis and golf tournaments. This after the purchase of English Premier League club Manchester City by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family last year.

"Football and sport has always been a tool of geopolitics," explained Michel Desbordes, author and editor of the International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship. "The Middle East [has] used sport to change their image. 15 years ago it was a place of oil, it was boring. They took to sports in order to talk about their countries in a different way. It shows a private company, city or country has the same objective. First you look for awareness, second you improve your image, and third you sell. A country tries to attract inward investment and tourists in exactly the same way as a company attracts customers."

That the tournament takes place a few weeks after financial turmoil hit its neighbor Dubai is equally as significant. In many ways Dubai was the trailblazer for using sport as a marketing tool in the Middle East, using the Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horse race, the Dubai Tennis Championship and Dubai World Championship golf tournament to make a name for itself internationally.

But where Dubai has previously led, Abu Dhabi has been keen to follow and now looks primed to overtake.

"They [Abu Dhabi] are taking the lime light from Dubai with the F1 Grand Prix, Ferrari theme park [Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, which opens next year] and the FIFA Club World Cup," said Christopher M. Davidson, author of "Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success."

"In Dubai sports events were viewed in an economic way as they tried to bring in foreign direct investment. In Abu Dhabi it is more about foreign policy. Sport is a very safe way to build political capital and legitimacy. It's a soft power foreign policy."

The tournament -- which provides the opportunity to watch the likes of Messi, Ibrahimovic and Veron at close quarters -- is seemingly proving a hit among local fans too.

"The final is a sell out and some tickets for Barcelona's first game were priced at under $5," explained Kunawicz, who expects good crowds at the revamped Zayed Sports City and Mohammed bin Zayed stadium. The only disappointment is the fact that home interest has already ended: Oceania champions Auckland City produced the first shock of the tournament by disposing of Dubai's Al Ahli 2-0.