DUBAI // With the second season of the revamped UAE Pro League just under way, league insiders admit the dozen teams' greatest competition is not against each other. Their true challenge, they say, is wresting the attention of local fans away from the English Premier League and other top-calibre leagues.
"People here still think the local league is low level and they are not interested in watching this quality of football. That is the problem," said Yousuf Abdullah, the UAE Footbal Association's general secretary. Meanwhile, the English Premier League continues to grab big TV audiences, while fixtures in Spain's Primera La Liga and Italy's Serie A often go head-to-head with the local games' kick-off times.
"TV makes it easy for them to watch high-quality football like the Spanish, Italian and English leagues. And they are more comfortable watching at home than going to the stadium," Mr Abdullah said. The stakes for the national league are high. Al Ahli, the reigning UAE champions, will contest the Fifa World Club Cup 2009 in Abu Dhabi against the likes of Barcelona and Estudiantes, and the winners of this season's Pro League will play in next year's tournament when it is hosted again by the UAE.
There is also the chance of making it through to the Asian Champions League - but only if there is a considerable growth in attendances. Under a recent decision by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), clubs aiming to take part in the 2011 Asian Champions League must average gates of 5,000 or risk losing their places. But with crowds averaging just over 2,000 during the UAE league's inaugural season last year, the FA and local clubs face an uphill struggle.
Unlike most struggling leagues, the UAE's problems are not related to money. The local sides Ahli, Al Jazira and Al Ain all reported earnings exceeding Dh10 million (US$2.72m) last season after high league finishes or cup success. They also received a chunk of the Dh84m distributed among league clubs by the UAE FA. Local clubs, Mr Abdullah says, have also recently received about Dh100m collectively from the Government, while sponsorship rights and TV deals raised around Dh597m by January this year.
But the conundrum remains: how to make the local clubs more appealing to fans and investors alike? "The clubs need to improve their facilities and promote the game well to interest people coming to watch these games. They need a superstar like David Beckham playing for one of the local clubs. For a long time in America and also in the Japanese league they have used [superstars] to improve football."
Rob McCaffrey, host of Showtime's football coverage in the Middle East, had a one-word answer: glamour. "The one thing you have in the Premier League is the biggest stars and the biggest base." Joe Morrison, the TV host for Ten Sports's Premier League coverage, which broadcasts to audiences in the Middle East and across south Asia, says the Premier League's gravitational pull on the top players is hurting other leagues.
He also says that millions of dollars in advertising revenues that could be going to the 12 UAE teams are going to top-flight English sides. "When Emirates were first advertising for football in England they had to put 'fly' at the beginning of their logo because people didn't know it was an airline," he said. "You can have the best airline in the world, but if you want to get out to a global audience you have to sponsor a sport that goes to a global audience. It's no good piling money into UAE football from a branding perspective because you are not going to get anything back from it."
Ahmed Saif, 23, an Al Shabab fan, who watched his side lose 2-1 to Jazira on Friday night, says the new policy of allowing only teams with an average attendance of 5,000 or more to enter the Asian Champions League is discriminatory. "The AFC is trying to put pressure on the clubs as one of the conditions to play in the Asian Champions League, but I feel that's not fair," he said. "The fans will come only if the team is in the reckoning or if it's a derby match. I don't think there'll be a crowd for games that have no bearings."
At Friday night's match, the feature game on the league's opening day, the crowd was just over 2,000. Mr Morrison believes that other "restrictive" league rules are holding UAE football back. Governed by the AFC, teams competing in the UAE Football League are allowed only three foreign players, as well as one "Asian" professional. So while sides in the English Premier League and other European competitions can flood their teams with skilled imports, UAE clubs are forced to rely on arguably less talented home-grown players.
Mr Saif agreed that casual fans would take an interest only if famous names were gracing the pitch. However, as a self-proclaimed loyal fan, he said: "It is good if there are famous players, but for a diehard fan, the team comes first. And for me, it doesn't matter if my team has famous players or not. My loyalty to the club will never change. It runs in the family." While the cap on foreign players remains, however, there are some well-known faces plying their trade in UAE football.
One of the biggest is the Brazilian international Rafael Sobis, who left the Spanish side Real Betis for Jazira after agreeing a five-year deal worth Dh89.4m. He is joined by the Chilean international Jorge Valdivia, who moved from the Brazilian giants Palmeiras to Al Ain in a Dh41.7m deal. Nevertheless, Mr Morrison insists limits on foreign players must be removed if the quality of UAE football is to improve.
"Can you imagine having that rule in the Premier League?" he said. "It would kill the league because even if you go down to the Championship [English football's second tier] half of them are foreign." Another serious obstacle to local clubs is the apathy among Arab teenagers, according to Mr Morrison: "There are so many distractions for young kids - whether it's the PlayStation, internet or social networking.
He added: "I went to watch Germany against the UAE, which was about three months ago. It was absolutely blazing hot, the sweat was running off me and you think, 'Where is the fun if you are going to watch the match in the heat?'" Ahmed Mubarak, 51, another Shabab fan at Friday's match, agreed that today's young people had many more distractions than in his day. "The priorities are divided among the youth. The technology has advanced and there are a lot of other attractions for the youth to be preoccupied," he said.
"In my opinion the standard of football has improved considerably. Now the players are professional and with the increasing number of high-profile foreign signings, I think the game is going in the right direction. And if the youth can't come and watch such games, then there's nothing anyone can do about it." Mohammed al Shamsi, a 26-year-old travelling Jazira fan, felt the recent lack of crowds at the stadiums was only a temporary situation.
"The UAE Football Association has done enough and more to further develop and promote the sport in the country," he said. "The AFC must appreciate those efforts. Fifa has recognised it by staging the World Under 20 Cup in 2003 [in the UAE] and now they are staging the Club World Cup for the next two years. Such recognition from the world's governing body should not go unnoticed. "Of course, if more crowds can fill the stadiums, the club games will be more attractive. I think it will pick up when the fans get to see teams like Barcelona playing in the Club World Cup, and more big foreign signings in the local clubs."
Then there is the hope that a UAE footballer may one day break into the English Premier League. Mr Morrison believes having a home-grown player competing in Europe would highlight the UFL's rising quality, thus making it more appealing to local fans. That, however, ultimately depends on whether top Arab footballers have the desire to make their names elsewhere. * The National with additional reporting by Amith Passela