x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Asian influence is entertaining the Pro League already

The fourth foreigner has added a new dimension to the domestic football scene.

Not quite one month into the 2011/12 domestic football season, the Asian expatriate is beginning to look like the quiet game changer.

It was a tweak of the rules that did not receive great attention when it was made by the Pro League in June, at the close of last season. And even as outlined, the change sounded almost innocuous.

Each league club could sign a fourth foreigner this season as long as he was registered as a player for a country in the Asian Football Confederation.

"So what?" was perhaps the typical reaction, considering that players from Japan, Korea and China seemed unlikely to play in the UAE and that those from many other AFC countries were unlikely to make much of an impression.

Most UAE sides, however, have found and signed seasoned professionals, several of them with backgrounds as captains, to fill the new Asian slot, and they already are making an impact on their sides.

The two most impressive so far: Yasser Al Qahtani of Al Ain and Azizbek Haydarov of Al Shabab.

Al Qahtani is the former Saudi Arabia national team captain who has scored 44 goals for his country, including one in the 2006 World Cup. (Asamoah Gyan and David Trezeguet are the only other league players with a World Cup goal.) Powerful and athletic, Al Qahtani gives Al Ain an attacking edge they lacked last season. He already has scored for them, in their 2-1 victory at Dubai.

Haydarov comes from an oft-overlooked Asian football hotbed, Uzbekistan. Captain of the Uzbek Under 23 team in 2007, his game is marked by a Soviet-style relentlessness. He already has two goals. With Haydarov complementing Shabab's three returning South Americans, the Dubai club look formidable.

Other prominent talents already under contract include the Australians Lucas Neill and Mark Bresciano, with Al Jazira and Al Nasr, respectively.

Neill remains the Australian captain, and as a doughty centre-back is expected to stiffen Jazira's defence, often surprisingly permeable during their championship run last season.

Bresciano, who like Neill has played in the World Cup, brings to Nasr a decade of Serie A experience, with Parma, Palermo and Lazio. He made his first appearance last week.

The Iranian midfielder Iman Mobali has made himself known with Sharjah, and the Omani captain Fawzi Basheer is back at Baniyas, where he was the second-top scorer for the runner-up side last season.

Dubai have been able to secure the services of Bahrain's Fouzi Aaish, a midfielder who was in his country's first team during the painful 1-0 aggregate loss to New Zealand for a 2010 World Cup berth.

Two Lebanese also have been recruited into the league, and they might have been dismissed as irrelevant a month ago - before Lebanon swamped the UAE 3-1 in a 2014 World Cup qualifier in Beirut.

Mohammed Yousuf, a centre-back with Al Ahli, is a Bundesliga veteran and a former Lebanon captain. Hassan Maatouk, the Ajman midfielder, played a prominent role in Lebanon's victory over the UAE.

Three UAE clubs do not have an Asian expatriate, but two of them, Al Wahda and Al Wasl, may soon announce signings.

Wahda are thought to be interested in Sasa Ognenovski, the giant centre-back for Australia and the 2010 AFC Player of the Year, who would make a powerful pairing with Hamdan Al Kamali, were he to join.

The fourth foreigner is not all good news for the UAE. One former league executive fears that Emiratis will become even more marginalised in the attack with another dozen skilled expatriates in the league.

The clubs, however, seem stronger than in 2010/11, and that can only make for a more entertaining league season.


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