DUBAI // Last season, as football in the country turned professional, Al Wasl hardly looked the part. They seemed stuck in a time warp, unaffected by the changes happening around them. The arrival of top players like Jorge Valdivia, Rafael Sobis, Fernando Baiano or Hosny Abd Rabo at other clubs failed to jolt them out of their slumber; Wasl, instead, recruited a few unknowns.
The game of musical chairs with managers at the club contributed to the chaos. As Al Ahli, Al Jazira and Al Ain battled for the title, coaches at Wasl struggled to keep their job. There were four changes at the top and the club finished a poor seventh. But, before the end of the season there was a sort of awakening. In March, Brazilian Alexandre Guimaraes, a former coach of the Costa Rican and Panama national teams, was picked to lead the team for the next season. And, not surprisingly, "Guima" has been given carte blanche to revamp the seven-time league champions. Their last silverware was the league and President's Cup double in 2006, under Ze Mario who is now Ajman's coach.
"From the moment we began our pre-season in Germany, I have had all the help and support of the directors," said the 49-year-old Guimaraes, who masterminded Costa Rica's qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup. "They have shown until now that they are backing me up. So that is very important." Without that assurance, it is unlikely that Guimaraes would have committed himself to Wasl, given the fickle attitude of club chiefs last season. The damage of their revolving-door policy was obvious on the field and the club's only surviving foreign professional from last season, Alexandre Oliveira, testifies to the fact.
"Last year there were just too many changes at the club," said the Brazilian striker. "I think we had four or five coaches and that is very difficult for the players. Every time you have a new coach, the players don't know who is going to play or what system is going to be used. It is different now. During the camp in Germany the coach put a system for us. He knows how the players play, both locals and foreigners, and has given us our roles."
The club have also invested heavily in new personnel. They have paid US$8 million (Dh29.4m) to lure playmaker Douglas dos Santos from 2009 Brazilian Cup winners Corinthians. The impressive Blas Perez, Panama's national striker, lends bite to their attack, while Omani international Mohammed al Shaiba has been brought in to bolster the defence. With all bases loaded, Guimaraes is ready to challenge the country's best for domestic honours, and results in recent friendlies, including a 5-1 crushing of Ajman, have shown they ought to be taken seriously.
"We have our targets for this season, of course, and the most important one of them is to improve over last season," said Guimaraes. "We also want to be fighting with the big clubs to be in the top four. That is our objective." Douglas, 27, however, wants more than that. "I won two trophies with Corinthians last season - the Brazilian Cup and the Sao Paulo championship," he said. "And I want to be the champion again this season. That is what I have come here for. When you are the champion, everything is fine, everybody is happy - the manager, coach, fans and even your own family."