A primary purpose of journalism is revealing facts and information which would not otherwise be presented to the public. In sports reporting, this often involves bringing to light the inner workings of football clubs as they go through periods of managerial tumult or sating the increasing appetite for transfer tittle-tattle.
Rarely, if at all, should this function extend to a national team’s displays. Yet this is the situation in which the UAE have yet again found themselves.
Wednesday night’s 2-0 friendly win against Bahrain was played at an empty Hazza bin Zayed Stadium and was not broadcast on TV. Stupefyingly, this was not a one off. Regularly throughout the World Cup 2018 qualification process, matches have existed in a media black hole. It is no surprise then when poor crowds appear and players not used to performing in front of fevered fans fail to perform.
This is not to cry maleficence about the intention ahead of next Tuesday’s key clash with Iraq. It is perfectly understandable why coach Mahdi Ali and senior management at the UAE Football Association would desire information leaks be at a minimum.
The broader issue is that much more is being lost in the taxing battle to make Russia, than which is gained through such obfuscation.
August’s 2-0 defeat to North Korea in Shanghai was not allowed to be carried by Abu Dhabi Sports or Dubai Sports. Previous home friendlies against the likes of Bangladesh, Turkmenistan and Myanmar saw, at best, little encouragement given to supporters to attend.
Only January’s 2-1 win against Euro 2016 quarter-finalists Iceland featured the usual journalistic cycle at a disappointingly-attended Al Maktoum Stadium.
The effects of such secrecy – rarely utilised by other nations – are insidious. A regular issue in Emirati football are the feeble crowds. For second-round qualifiers against Malaysia and Timor-Leste, less than 8,000 were present in the 42,056-capacity Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
When engagement is not always encouraged, repeats of the electric atmosphere for March’s 1-1 draw with Saudi Arabia which attracted 32,325 cannot be expected.
Similarly, the UAE’s ‘Golden Generation’ buckled again during last month’s 3-0 loss in the Kingdom which has caused serious damage to their qualification hopes.
Fixtures do not just represent a chance to test out tactics or foster partnerships. They also function as a means to build experience of expectant or hostile arenas.
A cavernous cannot hope to embolden. It only serves to cosset players, while growing apathy and exclusion within disenfranchised supporters.