x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Bolstering foreign legion has benefits to Pro League

From January 1, the league's board of directors declared, each team in the league will be allowed to sign two more foreign players, taking their total to five.

It was a Sunday announcement nearly lost among the bustle of all 12 Pro League sides playing that day. From January 1, the league's board of directors declared, each team in the league will be allowed to sign two more foreign players, taking their total to five.

It may seem a bit of a half-measure when this caveat is added: the number of foreigners on the pitch remains limited to three. But, in fact, the move could have a dramatic impact across the country.

On the club level, it could reinforce sides damaged by the almost inevitable injuries that come from a long season.

Al Ain, for example, the most decorated club in the country, suddenly are involved in a relegation fight, almost an unthinkable concept, because the side have been ravaged by health woes, including injuries to their foreign players, aside from Jose Sand.

If clubs had two additional foreign players under contract they could immediately plug gaps among the foreign legion rather than having to wait until the transfer window opens to sign new talent from outside the country. By which time, as in the case with Al Ain, they could be hopelessly out of contention.

Having three competent (and healthy) foreigners available is also important in a country where demands from the national team strip some of the best clubs of their most talented Emiratis for long periods.

The 2010/11 calendar may never be rivalled for the number of major events which took Emirati players away from their clubs, but most seasons will be interrupted by international events, and more than one.

If clubs can at least count on having three (from a pool of five) foreign players available, it should help maintain their playing level and also assure fans that their side will not be in a state of collapse while a Gulf Cup or Asian Games or Asian Cup is going on.

Admittedly, the new system is likely to deepen the divide separating the top clubs and those at the bottom of the table.

Teams prepared to spend, such as Al Jazira, Al Wahda, Al Ain and Al Ahli, are more likely to spring into action next month and quickly add two more foreign players to their squad. Smaller clubs, such as Kalba, Dubai and Al Dhafra are less likely - and not required - to take the costly step of signing foreigners who could spend most of a season playing with the reserves in the Challenge League. Thus, the chances of a club coming into the top flight and making an impression now seem increasingly unlikely; the playing field just got a little less even.

A little-mentioned but key provision of the new rule is this: at least two of a club's five foreign players must be under the age of 21 and also must not have played any international matches in their country of origin, according to Cherie Mansfield, the league's marketing and communications manager.

The intent is clear: by bringing in young men with no history in international events, the Pro League will be in position to develop players who could become naturalised and someday play for the national side.

The top leagues in Qatar and Saudi Arabia currently allow six foreigners per professional club, and four on the pitch. That makes for larger numbers of foreigners who can be studied and naturalised, becoming eligible for their national sides.

If Qatar, for example, naturalises a Brazilian striker, the UAE seems almost obliged to take similar action or risk falling behind in the region, in Asia and in the world.

In a perfect football universe, perhaps every domestic league would be filled by homegrown players. But when need and ambition outstrip local talent, clubs must look outside their borders to remain competitive. The Pro League has now allowed its clubs a little more flexibility to do just that.