x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Don’t make chaos a common fixture in UAE Pro League

The country's domestic top flight could have had the football stage almost to itself last night and tonight, and instead it takes another week off in a season that started too soon, will end too late and has endured two breaks of more than 40 days.

Call it the Pro League's Lost Weekend. Great January weather, national team not playing, two off days at the Asian Cup ... and the domestic league doing nothing.

It must cause almost physical pain for Carlo Nohra, the chief executive of the league. The country's domestic top flight could have had the football stage almost to itself last night and tonight, and instead it takes another week off in a season that started too soon, will end too late and has endured two breaks of more than 40 days.

How did this happen? Again, blame the international calendar, in this case the Asian Cup. Had the national team advanced out of group play in Qatar, a possibility right up until January 19, they would have played in the quarter-finals last Saturday - too late to hope the UAE's best players would be ready to play for their clubs this week.

Admittedly, Nohra and the Pro League are in a difficult position, pushed and pulled from several directions.

The various national teams come first, and they have been campaigning, in the Asian Games, the Gulf Cup and the Asian Cup, for almost three months now. Several top teams have multiple players who answer the national team call, and those clubs (Baniyas and Al Wahda, in particular) do not want to play Pro League matches when several of their first XI are off serving the UAE.

And there went all of November, most of December and all of January, torn from the calendar.

But the league also serves the clubs, the same clubs Nohra has been prodding to emphasise marketing and increase attendance. It actually is a sign of progress that the ambitious clubs will not stand for the old way of making up the schedule on almost a weekly basis. They want their home dates nailed down far in advance to properly promote their matches.

But this advance in professionalism also limits the league's ability to improvise. Two years ago, for example, the Pro League schedule would have picked up this week, albeit with about seven days' notice.

When the league finally committed to returning on February 3, the week after the Asian Cup would conclude, teams such as Al Jazira were already champing at the bit. Phil Anderton, the Al Jazira chief executive, three weeks ago said that his club, having finally been given the firm dates for which they had been waiting, were swinging into action to prepare for their next home match, on February 14.

From the Pro League perspective, it has been a nightmarish series of international events, including the Club World Cup, that have ripped out the heart of the fixtures list, turning the 2010/11 season into two chunks interrupted by nearly three months of inactivity.

What could have been done this week? The semi-finals of the Etisalat Cup should have been played, with or without the top Emirati players. Instead, they will have to be fitted into the calendar sometime in the next few months. (Along with the President's Cup, which has four rounds still to play, and the Asian Champions League, which begins for Al Ain next month and for Wahda and Jazira in March.)

This is a Pro League season that began on August 26, during Ramadan, in searing heat, and will end on June 9, in searing heat, and nearly four weeks later than it did a year ago.

What Nohra and the league can say in their defence is this: you told us we could not interfere with the national teams, and we did not. The clubs want fixture certainty, and for the final 11 weeks of the season, they have it.

This is the best of a bad situation. Watching a week of January tick by without a single match being played surely highlights the frustrations felt during a stop-and-start Pro League season.

 

poberjuerge@thenational.ae