As the English Premier League resumes action this weekend, football in the UAE is finally on the right path.
Top officials here have restructured their priorities, worked towards sustaining a growing match-day fan base and are significantly contributing towards raising the profile at the grassroots levels.
The first-time appearance of a UAE football team at the London Olympics last year caught popular attention both here and in Europe.
In addition, the current hoopla in the world’s sports media about Arsenal’s attempts to lure one of the Olympic team’s star players, Omar Abdulrahman, against interest from the likes of Barcelona and the German club Shalke among others, has undoubtedly helped.
Indeed, the Sheikh Mansour-owned Manchester City was so impressed with the Al Ain playmaker’s talents at the Olympics, the club gave him a two-week trial shortly afterwards.
Last week, The National reported how Al Ain’s chairman saw the situation regarding the interest in his player.
“Omar Abdulrahman is a national treasure,” Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed said. He stressed the young Emirati was beyond the level of a mere trial for another club.
“Omar is above having to go on trial to prove his skills as he has played high-quality league and international matches, which are the real test. If there is a serious [offer] we are ready to negotiate with the team and reach a compromise,” he said.
The deputy chairman of Al Ain was equally bullish.
“Have we had an offer from Arsenal for him to come to train? Then yes,” Rashid Al Hajri, told the UK’s Daily Mirror last week. “We’ve also had offers from Spanish teams, and other teams also, but the player will decide ultimately.”
The UAE senior national team’s victory in the Gulf Cup this year has brought about further interest in the domestic game.
A few months ago Mohammed Al Romaithi, the chairman of the UAE’s Pro League Committee, announced the decision to change the name of the league to the Arabian Gulf League, part of his bid to help the country distinguish itself to the region.
The league has not gone unnoticed in the wider world either and several top internationals, players and coaches, have graced the country’s grounds.
Big names to have been attracted to the UAE game include the Paraguayan international Roberto Acuña, the former Inter Milan striker Mohamed Kallon and the 2006 Fifa World Player of the Year Fabio Cannavaro.
In 2011, France’s David Trezeguet and the Argetinian World Cup winner Diego Maradona arrived as player and coach, respectively.
It is evident the presence of these imports, especially the managers, has helped to raise the overall profile of the league. But what motivates them to make the move? Is financial reward the primary factor?
For most, the answer to some extent is yes. The former Austrian international player and coach Josef Hickersberger, who managed Al Wasl and Al Wahda twice, admitted as much in a May interview with the Austrian daily Kurierafter ending his last spell at Al Wahda last year.
“Financially it was certainly a good time. But nevertheless, I’m glad I survived the [final] season, it was the hardest year in my life as coach,” he said.
But for others, it goes beyond the fiscal rewards. For them, the opportunity to work with younger players is also a draw, as pointed out by Paulo Bonamigo, the manager of the recently promoted Sharjah.
“I chose Sharjah Club because the players are young,” he said. “They have good technique and they will be very good in the future,” he told Sports 360.
Local players have benefited from this foreign influx and the presence of a very talented and experienced group of young players in the league exemplifies that. A few of them have even had stints at European clubs.
They include Al Wahda’s Hamdan Al Kamali’s six-month loan to the French powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais last year, and the most recent, a two-week-trial in England for Baniyas’ Amer Abdulrahman with Blackburn Rovers.
It is Al Ain’s Abdulrahman, a young midfield genius who was recently named in the UK magazine Goal’s top 50 players for this year, who may be the best-equipped Emirati to give it a real shot in Europe.
Reminiscent in style of the Spanish star David Silva, although a few centimetres shorter, those who have seen him believe he could develop into a top footballer at the Asian level at least and probably higher.
Abdulrahman himself sounded positive when asked about his potential prospects of going on to bigger things.
“Of course, why not?” he said after receiving the accolade from Goal. “There are some proposals from Saudi Arabia, England, Portugal and other countries but it’s up to Al Ain officials to decide. I want to play in Europe.”
The English club Wigan’s Omani goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi, the first Arab from the GCC to play in Europe, echoes that sentiment, saying the time is right for Abdulrahman to move.
“He has quality throughout his game to make the step up but he’d have to work on his fitness and become better physically. He certainly has all the skill though, he’s fantastic.
“If Abdulrahman has an offer for a team in Europe, then he should take it,” Al Habsi says.
Few Arabian Gulf players have tried their luck in England, but the most famous, and probably most prolific striker to come out of Saudi Arabia, is one. Sami Al Jaber had a spell in the elite with then English First Division side Wolverhampton, although his foray into the top flight only lasted a few months between 2000 and 2001.
Despite the rough and tumble of the English game, he retains fond memories.
“I learnt everything at Wolves and was really happy to have had that time there,” he said.
The physical aspect of the game in Europe is a major concern for Emirati players and others from the region.
Al Jaber’s countryman Yasser Al Qahtani, the 2007 Asian player of the year and also a leading Saudi striker, tried out with Manchester City late that year. Apparently, he fell like a “bag of chips” after a harsh tackle from the hardman defender Richard Dunne. Soon afterwards, he returned to his club, also Al Hilal.
If there is one characteristic required of all players in the pro game today, it is the capacity to both give and take a smack. Introducing players to the physical side of the game is just as vital as helping them to build their technical skills and should start at the grassroots level.
A few top-level UAE clubs are seriously looking at improving that foundation by recruiting foreign experts. Most prominent of those is Albert Benaiges, the former director of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, who was brought in to take over a similar role at Al Wasl’s budding youth academy this year.
The country also welcomed the experienced former Portuguese coach Carlos Carvalhal last month. The The one-time Sporting Lisbon and Besiktas boss has been appointed to administer the development of Al Ahli’s promising young talent.
The UAE’s U17 team participation in the upcoming World Cup, being hosted in the UAE and starting October 17, will feature strong players in such as Mohammad Al Akbary, Hameed Abdullah and Ali Ghuloom
With some fine tuning, there is good and growing reason to believe the country’s youth players are at the start of something big.