AFC presidential candidate and current chairman of the UAE General Authority for Sports (GAS), Major General Mohamed Khalfan Al Romaithi, reflects on the 2019 Asian Cup.

Over the past month, the UAE has been the centre of the Asian football universe. For the second time in its history, the Asian Cup was welcomed to the emirates – although this tournament was a world away from the last in 1996. Just 12 teams competed back then compared to 24 this time and by the end of the 2019 edition, 52 matches will have taken place across eight stadiums in three emirates; it is the biggest sporting event the UAE has ever hosted.

In April, the UAE may once again be at the centre of the Asian football universe. Major General Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi, the chairman of the UAE’s General Authority for Sports, will be running for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Presidency. Qatar’s Saoud A.Aziz M A Al-Mohannadi and incumbent H.E. Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain will be Al Romaithi’s opponents.

While candidates are unable to officially launch their campaign until March, Al Romaithi admitted: “Obviously I am running which means there are things that can be done better.”

The delivery of the Asian Cup will certainly be a major success story for Al Romaithi to point to when campaigning officially begins in March. It was the first 24-team incarnation of the continental tournament and while there were inevitably some blips, the former UAE Football Association president has been happy with the delivery.

“It was a good tournament,” he said. “The technical level has gone up every time the Asian Cup takes place. I’ll admit we have seen some boring games but we have also seen a lot of very good games and competition.

“I like the format of 24 countries, which gives smaller teams the opportunity to play matches and develop. Kyrgyzstan went to the round of 16 which was very impressive, the Philippines made their debut and it was great to see the Yemenis playing after all that has happened to their country.

“We should keep 24 teams for a few editions to come. There needs to be a project to help develop football further in the Asian countries that didn’t come to this Asian Cup and elevate their level. Then maybe in the future, after four or five editions of this format, we could maybe have 32 teams. But not before that.”

Like any major international sporting event, the 2019 Asian Cup arrived in the UAE with some big promises. ‘Legacy’ considerations are central to any successful sporting bid and the UAE won hosting rights with a vow to improve infrastructure and fan engagement.

Stadiums in Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Dubai were refurbished, with Al Nasr’s Al Maktoum Stadium totally overhauled; their impressive new arena is now one of the most eye-catching in the UAE. Facilities were improved, for both media and fans, and while there have been a couple of blips along the way, the changes have been well received.

The fan engagement side has been a little more challenging. Low attendances have blighted domestic football in the UAE for years but the Asian Cup UAE 2019 Local Organising Committee made it a key priority to encourage more people to go to the matches.

Despite numerous campaigns and initiatives on both the community and corporate side, however, attendances have fallen a little short of expectations. Had the stadiums been full for every game, one million spectators would have attended the tournament; ahead of the final that number is around 610,000.

“Honestly, I think we did everything we could,” Al Romaithi reflects. “Everyone knew four years ago that the championship would be held here. Everyone knew from last April when the draw was made in Dubai which teams would play and where. There has been a lot of time dedicated.

“Personally I anticipated more than we have had so far. But we did all the promotion we could do to bring the people to the tournament. It is not something I am really unhappy about; it is satisfactory.

“The legacy of this Asian Cup will be that people will remember our country, remember our people. They lived among us, even if only for a short time. This is the human side of legacy – people seeing that the UAE is a country of tolerance and peace. From the other side, all of the stadiums that we have fixed is a legacy, all the training fields are a legacy.

“All the systems and operation models that we used for the tournament should be adopted in our league to make everybody’s life easier. There are a lot of positive things to take out of this competition.”

“The legacy of this Asian Cup will be that people will remember our country, remember our people.”

As well as two Asian Cups, the UAE has also hosted four FIFA Club World Cups, as well as the FIFA U20 and U17 World Cups. It is an impressive portfolio, but with a notable omission. So could the UAE welcome the football world to its shores for the FIFA World Cup?

“I think this country can host the World Cup, yes,” Al Romaithi says. “For a young country like us, small in size, to host all these FIFA and AFC tournaments in 47 years is a great achievement. As a UAE citizen I am proud of how much our country gives to football and the fans.

“In the future of course anything could happen. There is a race to develop and create positive change in the region happening right now. I hope we overcome our political disputes and this region will be able to do anything we dream of. Olympic Games, World Cups – anything is possible.”