Why do so many people in the Middle East support Barcelona and Real Madrid?
Words by Peter Iantorno
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Barcelona and Real Madrid have global footballing borders. With no geographical tie to any of the major clubs, how do football fans in the Middle East decide which team to support? We found out
Ask any football fan from the Middle East which team they support and you’re more than likely to get one of two answers: Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Of course, there are always a few exceptions – the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Bayern Munich are all popular amongst fans in the Gulf – but the two Spanish giants are by far and away the best supported in the region.
But why is that the case? Is it the incredible success that both teams have enjoyed on the world stage? Is it the efficient marketing machines behind the scenes? Or is it, perhaps, the plethora or global stars in both teams’ ranks?
Well, according to Daniel Rocca, a board member of the official FC Barcelona Fan Club UAE, it’s a mixture of all those things and more, but first and foremost he points to his beloved Barça’s astounding success as a reason for their popularity. “They have been incredibly successful,” he says, “and everyone in the area likes success.”
And it’s not just the fact that they win that makes Barcelona popular – according to Rocca, it is also the way they win. “They have played a unique brand of football for decades that has enamoured fans all over the world,” he says. “It is an attacking, skillful approach to the game and people will always find that more watchable.
“Arab football has always tried to play this style of football and you can notice it with the UAE national team as well. You won't see many Arab teams playing long-ball, direct football, which only adds to the attraction to the Barça style.”
In addition to the success and the style, there’s also the fact that both teams have for years boasted some of the biggest names in the sport, which is bound to increase their popularity. It’s certainly the reason why Dubai-based producer Dana Charkaoui started supporting Real.
“I do not really remember how it all started as I was quite young,” says Dana, who was born and brought up in Lebanon before moving to Dubai as an adult. “But I remember that the team then had all the great players including Zidane, Beckham, Roberto Carlos, the Brazilian Ronaldo and Raul.”
The Generation Game
In Europe a passion for football is often passed down through the generations, and it was no different in Dana’s traditional Lebanese household. “My father is the one who helped shape our love for sports and football in particular,” she says. “He and two of my sisters support Barcelona, and my brother, my other sister and I support Real Madrid.”
Of course, the Middle East has produced plenty of its own talent over the years – the likes of Al Ain midfielder, darling of the UAE national team and current Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 cover star Omar Abdulrahman is testament to that – but compared to the Galacticos of Zidane, Casillas, Beckham, Raul and co., and the current stars in both teams such as Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema at Real and Messi, Neymar and Suarez at Barcelona, he’s simply not in the same league.
The fact that the current stars are built up so much in the media and have so many global obligations to fulfill seems to play a major part in both teams’ popularity. It was one such media obligation – Real Madrid’s friendly match against AC Milan in Dubai in 2014 – that Dana pinpoints as the highlight of her time spent following the team.
“My best memory was stalking them through their entire visit to Dubai last December,” she says. “It was one of the best experiences ever – especially as I got to see the players in real life. I will never forget it.”
An accusation those who have experienced the pleasure and pain of watching their club from the terraces week-in week-out, is that you can’t be classed as a true fan unless you actually go to the matches. However, according to Daniel Rocca of the Barcelona UAE fan club, that couldn’t’ be more wrong.
“Barcelona have fans on all continents, games can be watched worldwide,” he says. “Every major sports club in the world of every major sport has fans all over the world. It would be unrealistic to think all would at some point make a sort of pilgrimage (though many surely do). There must be a couple million fans in Spain alone that have probably never ever been to the stadium.
Rocca puts this down to a number of factors including financial and geographic, but one thing he does insist on is that not only are overseas fans just as genuine as those who go to the games, but also that any club that doesn’t have them can’t be considered as a major one.
“Nowadays every major club, whether it's United, Madrid, Bayern or Juventus, will have more fans internationally than within their borders,” he says. “Without these fans they simply won't be a major club any more.
“Take clubs like Everton or Borussia Dortmund for example; two clubs with massive support in their countries yet they will never be considered on the same level as the aforementioned clubs, and that's down to their international reach, or lack of it.”
And don’t ever let it be said that overseas fans aren’t as passionate and devoted as those who regularly go to games either, as Real fan Dana confirms in emphatic style. “I would never switch allegiances, because switching teams is like changing your religion,” she says. “Once you support a team, you always do, in good and bad times. I could never force myself to cheer for another team.”
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