Numbers can be deceiving but not when it comes to Emirati names popping up across UAE’s Arabian Gulf League with every passing season.
The race for the top scorer went down to the wire between Al Wahda’s Argentinean front man Sebastian Tagliabue and Al Jazira’s Emirati striker Ali Mabkhout with only two goals separating the two with a game remaining. Mabkhout’s attempt to surpass Tagliabue was hard done as he managed to only score a lone goal in the final league game against Al Dhafra. With that Tagliabue proclaimed the golden boot for the 15/16 season.
Yet, that sums up the predicament of the Emirati players in the league. 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. Two seasons ago, the first Emirati on the list was Al Nasr’s Habib Fardan with nine goals as a winger coming in at 16th position. Last season saw an improvement with Al Jazira’s Ali Mabkhout ranking just behind Vučinić, Toure and Wanderley with sixteen goals. The sturdy but shy striker has had an incredible year at both the domestic and international level and continues to improve himself ending in a career high finish of 2nd in the goal scorers list. After him, no other Emirati has featured. With all importance placed on foreign talent assuming that it will only help the local talent in the longer run, little of the that talent has rubbed off on the Emiratis. And UAE’s top striker – Al Ahli’s Ahmed Khalil could not be seen anywhere close to the top fifteen.
Since Faisal Khalil’s 16 goals for Al Ahli 8 years ago, no Emirati had been able to pretty much mirror Khalil’s achievement, which drove a worthy struggle, lots of local pride, and relatively some success.
One may argue, as in several cases, where clubs invest in individuals who can either find the net or have a person who can find the person find the net, perhaps the list of defenders and goal keepers should boast of local talent. It does but not to an extent that they’d stand out. If you look at the few local names that are making their rounds regionally, none of them would feature a defender or a keeper. With league champions Al Ahli being the only team that managed to hold its away goal stats at 20 in the 14-team league, the rest of the sides gave up an average of 42 goals. This obviously skewed by goals galore against teams like Al Shaab, Fujairah and Al Jazira. Yes, Al Jazira (50 goals).
One would expect the defenders to learn and be stronger as they get scored on day-in and day-out, yet that is not the case.
Hence, the question still remains to be answered, is whether the presence of foreigners has facilitated the growth and development of local footballers?
Mohammed, who focuses specifically on UAE football via his twitter account @UAEkick suggests there is a co-relation between the two if the right people are involved.
“In my opinion foreign strikers can help and improve the quality of Emirati strikers. Take Vucinic and Mabkhout as an example. You can see the influence of Vucinic on Mabkhout. When they were playing together Vucinic was always giving instructions to Mabkhout and today we can see how the Emirati has grown up in terms of his finishing and the level that he is playing at.”
Ali Khaled, a journalist with UAE’s The National, and Matt Monaghan, reporter with UAE based sports daily Sports 360, look at the case of Khalil and Mabkhout as well, comparing their form within their respective clubs.
“It is clear that Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil have benefited immensely from their celebrated foreign partners. The presence of Mirko Vucinic took the former to a new level, while Khalil could not fail to have learned from Grafite, Lima and Moussa Sow. The key aspect is whether these big names kill opportunities for local strikers or help develop them. For Khalil, he has only become a regular starter in the last two seasons. The only worry for the UAE is that Khalil, Mabkhout & now the likes of Al Wahda’s Mohamed Al Akbari are regularly deployed as wide forwards rather than through the middle to accommodate the big names,” says Matt.
Whereas Ali looks at it from a different perspective.
“Certainly having foreign strikers in the league restricts the chances of emerging local talent, but the situation is not always black and white. Coaches, some of whom exist from week to week, cannot be expected to play raw Emirati players ahead of experienced internationals. Khalil’s is a good example. For several years his erratic form prevented him from securing a regular first team spot at Al Ahli, before a dramatic upturn in inconsistency over the last two seasons led to him being crowned 2015 AFC player of the year. On the other hand, his international strike partner Mabkhout positively thrived playing alongside a foreign forward, Mirko Vucinic at Al Jazira, taking his game to a whole new level,” says Ali.
But if that’s the case, Emirati’s still do not feature in the list assuming that each side has a combination of a local and international in the offensive line-up.
“UAE, unfortunately, does not have the number of quality strikers that would allow them to surpass foreigners in the list. We only have two strikers who have the potential to compete – Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil. However, Khalil rarely is in the starting line-up of Al Ahli because he has not been able to take advantage of all the opportunities and the support he has. On the other hand, Mabkhout has proven himself to the national team and Al Jazira that he can score whenever the team needs him to. Though Al Jazira would like to forget about this season, he was there to provide a solution. If Al Jazira had a better season I would say that nothing would’ve stopped Mabkhout from topping the list,” says Mohammed.
Ali reveals similar sentiment on the diminishing level of Emirati talent available for managers to choose from.
“Since the start of the Pro League era, it’s been very difficult for Emirati strikers to be among the tops scorers. As ever the pool of players for clubs to pick from remains a small one, but a more important reason is that even the best emirati talent in certain positions, strikers being main among them, simply don’t get enough opportunities,” Going on to add a significant factor that adds to it.
“With current rule allowing three foreigners plus one AFC player at each club, coaches and management inevitably make a top class striker, or even two, their priority.”
To a certain level, the ability of officials to entrust a manager within a club on a long-term basis could hold the key for Emirati talent to come up.
“The old adage in football is ‘goals win games’ and this has had a detrimental effect on the development of Asian strikers. It takes a very special domestic talent for clubs to trust with their goalscoring burden, rather than use one of their four foreign slots on a big-money import. The short-termism in the hiring and firing of coaches in the AGL ensures they cannot be patient with a young striking talent. Goals are required right away to stay in a job & foreigners usually are the only way to guarantee this. Clubs in the AGL are also after marquee names & the most-glamorous position on the pitch is up top,” says Matt.
Nonetheless, a few young (U-24) Emirati’s have made themselves known in though their performances this season. These include:
Al Nasr: Ahmed Shambieh (22) and Jassim Yaqoub Salman (19)
Al Jazira: Sultan Al Shamsi (19), Khalfan Al Shamsi (21) and Ahmed Al Attas (20)
Al Wahda: Ahmed Rashid (19), Mohammad Abdulbasit (20)
Dibba Al Fujairah: Ahmed Ibrahim Hilal (22)
Emirates: Walid Amber Esmail (23)
Fujairah: Khaleil Khameis Salem (23)
Al Ahli: Majed Hassan (23)
Al Shabab: Jassim Hassan Salem (21)
Al Wasl: Abdulla Mohammed Kazim (19)
However, two from the list have stood out.
Ali believes the Al Jazira striker Ahmed Al Attas could potentially have what it takes to be the next Emirati name to burst out from the bubble of hidden upcoming talent.
“Ahmed Al Attas at Al Jazira is one of UAE football’s most talented young strikers, and he is highly rated by Mahdi Ali who has already made him part of the international set up. Yet at his club he remains very much an option from the bench at the age of 21, behind Thiago Neves, Mabkhout and Kenwyne Jones. So often he has been thrown on as a second half substitute in an effort to overturn a deficit, not always the ideal environment to thrive. His situation is unlikely to change in the near future.”
And as for who excites Matt the most?
“Al Jazira’s Khalfan Mubarak. Blessed with outrageous technique & an eye for goal, he could develop into the next Omar Abdulrahman. It will be interesting to see what kind of impression the 21-year-old playmaker leaves on UAE coach Mahdi Ali during next month’s King’s Cup.”
Although, the sight of players like Tagliabué, Sow, Lima 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.
But those endorsing the idea of experience have strayed away from the “real world context.”