Hearts: Ex-chief has big role to play in FIFA tourney

WHILST Qatar begins preparations for hosting the World Cup in 12 years, along the road in Abu Dhabi things are slightly more urgent. FIFA's Club World Cup starts in the United Arab Emirates tomorrow, and the former Hearts chief executive, Phil Anderton, has a ringside seat.

Sepp Blatter's commitment to bringing football to Arab nations worked in Qatar's favour at last week's announcement for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The Middle East emirate was a surprise choice for 2022. Particularly since the city in which it proposes to host the World Cup final, Lusail, is still being built.

This is the second successive year Abu Dhabi has staged the Club World Cup featuring top clubs from all corners of the globe. Anderton's current club, Al Jazira, are hosting three matches at their home, the 42,000-capacity Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium. Excitement has been building there for weeks.

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Champions from all six continents will take part in the competition over the next ten days, including UEFA Champions League winners Inter Milan and the Copa Libertadores holders from Brazil, Internacional. If Qataris are seeking an insight into staging major football tournaments for future reference, a trip along the E11 highway to Abu Dhabi this week would be most worthwhile.

"You have teams like Inter Milan coming over, there will be big demand for that," said Anderton, appointed chief executive of Al Jazira Sports Club almost a year ago. "Last year, Barcelona came and both their matches sold out. People are looking forward to seeing Inter, with Benitez as manager, plus you've got Internacional (Brazil] as well. I'm really looking forward to this tournament.

"Ours is one of the host stadiums, so we have three matches. The Club World Cup is a big tournament. It's not the World Cup or the Champions League but it's still a coveted event which will be beamed around the world. It's just another in a long line of events which the Abu Dhabi government have been able to secure for the region. Sport is a big part of their plans for the future.

"Football in the UAE is very popular, it's definitely the number one sport. You have a lot of ex-pats because the locals actually only account for 15 per cent of the population. There are about 50 per cent Asians, then you have the balance of ex-pat Arabs and westerners like me. Football is a big part of things."

A source of personal frustration for Anderton is that Al Jazira will not take part in this prestigious event. Countries hosting the Club World Cup are invited to enter a club out of courtesy, usually their league champions.Al Jazira finished second to their city counterparts Al Wahda in last season's UAE Premier League, prompting the uncomfortable scenario of a rival club playing high- profile continental matches in their stadium. "It's a bit like Scotland hosting the Club World Cup and Hibs representing the country but their games being played at Tynecastle. It doesn't sit too well," laughed Anderton.

Also taking part are Pachuca of Mexico, TP Mazembe from Congo, South Korean club Seongnam and the Papua New Guinean part-timers of Herkari United.

"There will be foreign fans coming in to follow some of the teams, although I don't expect thousands of Papua New Guineans flying in," continued Anderton. "Last year, just before I started this job, I was over sussing a few things out and I heard this noise from outside my hotel. I looked out and there were 500 Argentinians singing and dancing because the Argentinian team (Estudiantes) were staying in my hotel.

"A lot of those who will be following the teams will be ex-pats from Dubai and Abu Dhabi because there is such a diversity of nationalities. Inter Milan will bring a fair amount of Italians with them, and there will definitely be Brazilians arriving. Inter will attract the neutrals who want to see a world-class team compete locally."

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If Anderton still takes time to pinch himself at the extravagance of his new existence, it would be understandable. Al Jazira are owned by the man who bankrolls the multi-millions at Manchester City, His Highness Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Links between the clubs are growing ever stronger. "My only football experience was Hearts so to come out here and be able to tap into Manchester City and all the exciting things happening there is fantastic for me. I was at Eastlands last Wednesday night for the Europa League game against Red Bull Salzburg and just seeing how they are organising themselves is really impressive.

"Obviously it helps when you've got the backing of Sheikh Mansour but they are going about things in a very professional way. It's really good for me to be able to see what they are doing first hand.

"If somebody had said to me I'd be in Edinburgh working for Scottish Rugby, then Hearts, then involved in tennis and then Abu Dhabi I'd never have believed them. So I don't look much further than next week to be honest.

"I haven't put a time limit on how long I'll be out here. If things go well, I'm enjoying it and the family is enjoying it, and Sheikh Mansour and the board are happy with me, that's great. If not, or if things change with the family, then we could come back home."

Abu Dhabi is baking in 30-degree heat and, with a conglomerate of the world's football clubs about to arrive on his doorstep, it's little wonder Anderton isn't for budging.