Football: Empty seats dampen Asian Cup atmosphere

Qatar's forward Almoez Ali (centre) dribbles past Iraq's defender Rebin Sulaka (left) and Iraq's midfielder Safaa Hadi Al-Furaiji during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup match between Qatar and Iraq at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi, on Jan 22, 2019.
Qatar's forward Almoez Ali (centre) dribbles past Iraq's defender Rebin Sulaka (left) and Iraq's midfielder Safaa Hadi Al-Furaiji during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup match between Qatar and Iraq at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi, on Jan 22, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

ABU DHABI (AFP) - Football managers used to screaming themselves hoarse during games are finding little need to reach for a post-match lozenge at the Asian Cup - where their voices echo around sparsely-populated stadia.

This month's tournament in the United Arab Emirates has struggled to attract crowds, with some coaches grumbling about the swathes of empty seats at the continent's showpiece competition.

"I personally think the atmosphere of the Asian Cup could be a little more enthusiastic, more exciting," Iran boss Carlos Queiroz told reporters.

"To be honest not only me but the Chinese, everyone, has been talking about it. (They) expected much better and a more enthusiastic atmosphere all over the country and at all the stadiums."

Hosted under the slogan "Bringing Asia together", the Asian Cup has so far fallen short of persuading enough of the region's fans to turn up and watch games.

Iran look one of the teams to beat, but barely 5,000 watched them thrash tournament first-timers Yemen 5-0 in their opening game at Abu Dhabi's Mohammed bin Zayed stadium - a venue that seats 40,000.

Barely a thousand more showed up to watch holders Australia and four-time champions Japan reach the quarter-finals, while even hosts UAE have played at half-empty grounds.

"We were expecting a bigger turnout," Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi, chairman of the UAE General Authority for Sports, told AFP.

"We are surprised by the lack of UAE fans too," he admitted in an interview. "This is a culture that I hope will change. Loyalty must always be there - win or lose."

Teams have complained of poor facilities with one from the Middle East accusing organisers of "cultural insensitivity" for suggesting their players use the hotel pool to recover from games despite many of the deck-chairs being occupied by bikini-clad holiday makers.

Meanwhile, fans have spoken of being asked by Asian Cup officials to leave their allotted areas to fill seats directly opposite the television cameras.

Just a couple of hundred witnessed Qatar's 6-0 demolition of North Korea in Al-Ain as locals snubbed the game and the long-running blockade of the Gulf state by its neighbours meant it was played in an eery silence.

UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni bizarrely blamed "cold weather" for another disappointing turnout when his side beat Kyrgyzstan 3-2 in extra time to reach the last eight this week.

"Maybe they preferred to stay home and watch it on television," shrugged the Italian, opening another can of worms.

Oman coach Pim Verbeek wanted to watch Asian Cup matches on TV but was puzzled to find they were largely unavailable at hotels, many of which don't show Qatari rights holders beIN Sports.

"It's a pity the games are not on television," shrugged the Dutchman. "I miss that in this tournament."