It is now just five short months until the UAE hosts the biggest sporting event in its history. The AFC Asian Cup 2019 will see 24 teams descend on the emirates for a month-long feast of football.

A colossal logistical operation, the like of which has not been seen before in the UAE, the Asian Cup is a complex tournament with many moving parts. Abu Dhabi-based Flash Entertainment is the company tasked with ensuring those parts are in harmony.

With a decade of experience of events in the UAE, Flash has successfully delivered major football spectacles before – the FIFA Club World Cup in 2010 and 2017 – but there is no question the Asian Cup is their biggest challenge to date. However it is a challenge the company is relishing, according to CEO John Lickrish.

“We’re delighted that everything is on schedule or slightly ahead of schedule at the moment,” Lickrish tells Sport Industry Insider. “It’s a tremendous undertaking– we’ve got 300 administrative staff, plus volunteers, security, F&B – there will be more than 10,000 people working on this event.

“There are lots of different groups and stakeholders that we’re working with for the first time but they are all professional and have all worked on sporting events in the past – the challenge is in coordination, getting to know each other and successfully integrating those different entities and organisations together.

“That’s the logistical challenge that comes with every major event – keeping everyone on schedule and on budget. We are very careful on the budget side as it can be easy to get carried away. You often see events go over but I don’t think the 2019 AFC Asian Cup will be one of them.

“We’ve worked with every major supplier in the country and abroad and have been preparing for this for over two years. We are in a very good spot at the moment, even further ahead of where I thought we’d be. Everyone is all smiles.”

Those smiles were transferred to the faces of potential Asian Cup spectators on Monday when tickets went on sale for January’s tournament. An accessible price structure has been widely applauded, with fans able to buy tickets for as little as Dhs25 for group stage and last-16 matches. Empty stadia has been a major issue in UAE domestic football for many years but Lickrish is confident grounds will be filled for the Asian Cup.

“Tickets are very affordable,” Lickrish explains. “We want people to attend multiple games and we understand that can often be a stretch so we want to make it as easy as possible. We think we’ve been very careful; this is a tournament for everyone.

“Of course there will be some games with countries who have populations with more wealth and will likely have more fans travel, or more expats who live here. Those are determining factors but we are trying to engage the UAE community as a whole to say this is an international tournament and you will see some of the best players in Asia playing and to come and watch football as a sport rather than supporting a specific nationality.”

The tournament was certainly handed a major boost when the likes of India, Philippines and Lebanon – countries with sizeable expat populations in the UAE – qualified, and Lickrish is optimistic that supporters will turn out in big numbers.

“There are not a lot of opportunities for expats to support their home countries at such a big event so we are excited about engaging those communities. It’s obviously nice to see Philippines and India as two of the biggest populations here in the UAE – they have great representation.

“There are not many major sporting or entertainment events that these communities can get behind so we are expecting a very high turnout – this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many people who have been living here.

“We are looking forward to all of the matches but I think knowing the local communities and their demographics we have a positive outlook. If you look at the draw we were very excited – 600,000 spectators is our estimate for the month and I think it’s quite doable. We think we will have the best Asian Cup yet.”

Last year’s FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi provided a perfect opportunity for Flash to trial initiatives designed to increase supporter numbers, with some degree of success.

“There are obviously some similarities with the FIFA Club World Cup but the scale is so much bigger. We’re talking four different emirates, 24 national teams, eight different stadia. You could never call the FIFA Club World Cup a test event but each experience helps you learn something new.

“Of course there will be a challenges from an interest level for some of the smaller countries – that’s just part of the game. But we’re dealing with different sized stadiums and different capacities – the games selected are appropriate for the size of the venue.

“We are always exploring how best to reach out to fans and into communities. Schools, embassies, ambassador initiatives – these will all play a part. The UAE is a very multicultural country and we are in a great location geographically. We will see packed stadiums I am sure.”

The recent FIFA World Cup in Russia also provided some useful blueprints for Lickrish and his team.

“We had a great presence in Russia, with plenty of notes taken! From a macro level, seeing how the transport works is interesting and from a micro level it is about seeing how people are interacting – the different areas that they are focusing on or repeat visiting. This was the biggest football tournament in the world so a lot of attention was paid to things like sponsor activations, concessions, health and safety, fanzones – we were monitoring everything in detail.

“The big international events are useful to look out for new innovations and to understand what the public is expecting from their experience overall. It is important for anyone organising an event to know that so many other things have to be developed around it to really make a positive impact on the fans who are attending and visiting the cities. Being a good host and having all of those activities, activations and participatory elements are really important to the overall experience.”

Legacy is always placed front and centre of any bid for a major tournament and improvements to the UAE’s eight host stadiums means there is a growing feeling that the Arabian Gulf League could genuinely benefit from the 2019 Asian Cup.

“When I first arrived in the UAE, going to football matches wasn’t the best experience,” Lickrish recalls. “There wasn’t really a proper F&B set up and you wouldn’t particularly want to take your kids there.

“If you want to bring out families and reach people beyond the hardcore fans you have to create a very positive experience. That includes providing dedicated seating, having VIP experiences, having proper security in place – ensuring fans know where to queue to get in to the stadium.

“In the last few years we’ve seen major changes and facility upgrades which will mean we can draw people in from the fringes, not just the hardcore supporters, and really give them an opportunity to enjoy the match. There’s really nothing better than going to see something live – that whole excitement brings it to another level. We hope to continue that through the Asian Cup and beyond.”

John Lickrish of Flash Entertainment (photo courtesy of Al Arabiya).

With the infrastructure now firmly in place to host a major international football tournament, it has been little surprise that UAE has been touted as a potential alternative destination for the 2022 World Cup in recent days as calls for Qatar to be stripped of the event have increased again following a new Sunday Times article questioning their bid.

UAE officials have always distanced themselves from stepping in to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, but Lickrish sees no reason why the country would not put forward a bid for another World Cup in the future.

“The history of the UAE and how quickly it has developed in a short period of time, always wanting to innovate, to be the best – that would suggest that yes, a World Cup probably is an aspiration.

“A few of the stadiums are a little short on capacity for a World Cup but overall the ability to deliver, suppliers and all of the elements you need to develop – police, traffic management, hotels, infrastructure, sponsorship, awareness, F&B – all of those aspects are very strong in the UAE.”