x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Football fans are the losers after league dissolved

Disbanding the UAE's professional football league has left the country's clubs, and the national team, in a state of uncertainty.

In an age when sport has become such big business, it is easy to lose sight of the most important priority: the fans. In this respect, UAE football officials have again failed the game's once-loyal following in the country.

On Monday, Ibrahim Abdul Malik, the secretary general of the General Authority of Youth and Sports Welfare, stunned fans by dissolving the nation's first fully professional league, popularly known as the UAE Football League. The national Football Association plans to organise the clubs into another league and promises continuity. There is, however, no denying the sense of confusion.

The crisis comes at a time when clubs are preparing for the start of the new season in September and, crucially, as the national team attempts to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.

Building that kind of team is hard enough, but now clubs, players and fans are unsure about the future of their sport. "Everyone is in a state of shock," an anonymous club executive said. "Everything is up in the air."

Players as well as fans deserve better than this. It hardly inspires confidence when behind-the-scenes politics seem to be in control of the sport. The league was disbanded because it had "repeatedly ignored the authority's warnings" to "abide by the official original name", the League of Pro Football Clubs. This shows the disconnect between officials and fans - who could not care less about the formal league name as long as they are offered quality football.

One of UAE football's failings over the last decade has been poor attendance. There are several reasons. First, the country's fan base is simply not large enough to provide significant support for 12 top-division clubs. More inexplicably, the clubs themselves have done too little to encourage attendance and have been happy to coast along on the generosity of owners and benefactors. In that respect, Abu Dhabi's Al Jazira Club deserves credit for several promotions that boosted crowds last season. That they were crowned champions was just deserts.

Clubs also have to compete with the blanket coverage of international football on television. High-profile deals, such as Al Wasl's appointment of Diego Maradona, pique fans' interest briefly, but are no substitute for a long-term strategy at the grassroots level.

In 1990, the UAE qualified for the World Cup in Italy thanks to a golden generation of players produced by the country's best clubs. For such heights to be reached again, football authorities need to focus on the playing field, not the politics.