A few nights ago, the 2014/2015 season in UAE officially ended with Al Nasr lifting their third title of the season – the prized Presidents Cup trophy. They had managed to steal the victory from underneath their Dubai rivals, Al Ahli securing the win after a Penalty shoot-out.
But that is not what’s bothering me. My question, which is yet to be answered, is whether the presence of foreigners has facilitated the growth and development of local footballers?
I had written a comparable piece, at the end of UAE’s Arabian Gulf League last season, musing the very question concluding with “when would the lesson be learnt?”
As it stands currently, it has not yet been learnt.
However, this season did factor in an entertaining element that was missing for the past few seasons. Few club’s like Al Jazira, Al Ain and Al Ahli were successfully able to strengthen their squads with high profile signings which were influential to the respective clubs – Mirko Vučinić (Al Jazira), Miroslav “Miňo” Stoch (Al Ain) and Everton Ribeiro (Al Ahli).
The Montenegrin was a coup for Al Jazira as he brought his poaching capabilities to get the goals at a quicker pace than many would have expected (I would fall under that category). Vučinić was able to rack up 25 goals in domestic league ending up with the golden boot, breaking Ghanaian talisman Asamoah Gyan’s domination of the award, since the latter moved to Al Ain in 2010.
Stoch’s presence in the midfield for Al Ain proved monumental in the clubs’ attempt to top the domestic league table and qualify for the KO rounds of the Asian Champions League. The Slovak set up his teammates at eight different occasions via few sublime through-balls in the league, some of which proved vital for Al Ain. The 2012 FIFA Puskas Award winner also scored a few stunners from outside the box, on his way to tally nine goals as an offensive midfielder. Unfortunately, word is that that last season would be his only season in the Arabian Gulf League.
Personally, if I could chose one player that has benefited the Arabian Gulf League this season, from an ‘observable’ perspective, it would be Ribeiro as the Brazilian was called by the National Team head coach Dunga to represent the nation in the upcoming Copa America tournament in Chile. His performance in the tournament is surely to place a spotlight on the league, be it negative or positive.
Apart from the three mentioned, there were also a few notable ‘expats’ who assisted their not-so-big clubs in their own potential way. The most influential of all would have to be Sharjah’s Wanderley, who single handedly, was able to help the club avoid relegation with his 17 goals, finishing third in the table of goal scorers. It can only be hoped that the club realizes the need for dependable and talented players who can support the Brazilian next season. Then there was the Senegalese Ibrahima Toure, who made headlines globally for, attempting a casual handstand as he waited for a corner to be taken during their Arabian Gulf Cup final win against Sharjah. But apart from his on-pitch theatrics, the front man scored 18 times for Al Nasr earning himself the second position in the table of top scorers for the season.
What about Emirati players?
Though, year-on-year, the league seems to be improving in terms of actual game play, we still do hear ourselves lament on end of season stats that barely features an Emirati on the list. Last year the first Emirati on the list was Al Nasr’s Habib Fardan who scored nine goals as a winger coming in at 16th position. This season saw an improvement with Al Jazira’s Ali Mabkhout ranking just behind Vučinić, Toure and Wanderley with sixteen goals. The shy striker has had an incredible year at both the domestic and international level. But that was it – just one Emirati player in the top 15.
The next few Emiratis who looked impressive on the pitch were Ahmed Shambieh and Mahmoud Khamis (Al Nasr), Khamis Ismael (Al Jazira), Adel Al Hosani and 19 year old striker Mohamed Al Akbari (Al Wahda), the latter who recently landed himself a call to the senior squad of the UAE national team. But they were your average consistent performers.
Although, the sight of players like Gyan and Vučinić on the pitch makes the league look all the while attractive, officials still seem to be in denial when it comes to developing quality among the local players. Most of them have at least momentarily stumbled onto the understanding that the experience of their foreign colleagues could only help the growth of the local players. Retreating on the experience front, experts rarely mention focus at the grassroots level. Why would they? The national team, with its current crop of players, has an average age of 26.