x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

FA have a hard act to follow after League revamp

The UAE Football League moved professional football in this country forward a full generation in three seasons.

Al Jazira's 'Celebration of Champions' on June 5 at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium drew 36,241 supporters to the Abu Dhabi club.
Al Jazira's 'Celebration of Champions' on June 5 at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium drew 36,241 supporters to the Abu Dhabi club.

On the steamy evening of June 5, the country's first professional football league was two weeks from extinction. Yet anyone among the 36,241 who jammed into Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium that night to see Al Jazira win their final game and celebrate a championship would have been forgiven for thinking the UAE Football League was going great guns.

Six goals in a wide-open game. Musical entertainment before and after the match. A famous cricketer signing autographs. A Ferrari Italia 458 awarded to an Abu Dhabi schoolteacher in a half-time competition.

Fireworks and a laser-light show. And that enormous, multinational crowd on a sizzling night when most of the country was buttoned up inside air-conditioned buildings somewhere.

The entity known in this newspaper as the Pro League, as the UFL on its website and inside its offices and, tellingly, as the League of Pro Football Clubs by the General Authority of Youth and Sport Welfare, was put out of business on Sunday.

Refusing to use its legal name was cited by the Government in the league's dissolution and the transfer of its authority to the Football Association.

The Pro League and FA had not always had the best of relationships. Topics of contention included the league schedule, the timing of the release of club players for the national teams and the bigger yet harder-to-quantify notion of "who sets the agenda for football in the UAE"?

Was it the league and the country's big clubs, in whose interests the league was thought to operate?

Or the body that represented the country in international councils and organised all its national teams?

A league official described it as "the usual league-versus-FA tit for tat", but at times it seemed a bit more intense than that.

Now, the FA is in charge, and its brief is imposing: to implement whatever changes in the league it believes are necessary and still be ready to roll out the 2011/12 season by the second week of September, less than three months from today.

An already daunting task will be made far more difficult if the FA and the committees it appoints to oversee the new structure attempt to reinvent the league in 30 days. Much accomplished by the league during its three-season life remains intact and is worthy of transferring directly to the new organisation.

To wit:

Game management. The Pro League took significant steps to set a schedule, publish it and adhere to it. Games started on time, at the locations stipulated months in advance. The treatment of players, fans and media were standardised and made predictable in the same way they would be in the leading leagues in the world.

Information technology. The league in the past season created a website — ufl.ae - that became a trove of electronic information, from the height, weight and shirt number of every player in the league to complete match reports for every game played in the past season. This represented a significant statistical breakthrough in a country that previously had recorded very little of the history of its top flight.

Marketing and development. The league's outgoing chairman has said that the top flight will have Dh140 million in outside income next season, most of it from lucrative corporate tie-ups such as naming rights and shirt sponsorships. A significant gap remains between expenses and revenue, but the rise of outside revenue from something close to zero to Dh140m represents a gain that should be welcomed and reinforced.

Supporter outreach. The league came to the conclusion that clubs needed to reach beyond their historic young-male-Emirati fan base if they hoped to maximise revenue and expand interest in the league. Jazira, in particular, made inroads in getting Asians and Westerners into their stadium and as a result were by far the best-supported club in the country.

Changes also will be required. Playing a 22-game league season in something less than nine months should be a top priority, and it will be interesting to see how often and for how long an FA-run professional league breaks for national team competitions.

The FA can also wade into the "league of 12 clubs or 14?" debate, as well as the "three-plus-one" issue, the proposal to allow a fourth foreigner for each club as long as he carries an Asian passport.

It may choose to enter into the discussion of how much is too much when signing coaches and players with global reputations, such as Diego Maradona and Fabio Cannavaro. It may also want to address the issue of merchandising, and lack of same. (Couldn't Al Ahli sell 10,000 "Cannavaro" shirts if only they were available?)

Whatever its faults, from failing to play under its legal name to an inability to get clubs to charge for admission, the UAE's dissolved league in many ways moved professional football forward by something like a full generation in only three years.

The league is far better known than it was in 2008; the standard of play continues to rise, by most reckonings; and leading clubs here aspire to be the best in Asia, and not just in the neighbourhood.

The league built up significant forward momentum in the three seasons that it spent not under the FA aegis.

Now that it is back under the FA umbrella, it is up to the national organisation to see that the country's clubs have more nights like that enjoyed by Jazira and 36,000 fans barely two weeks ago.

 

poberjuerge@thenational.ae