x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Now the world is watching as Pro League rises on a new era

A cast list of Maradona, Grafite, Trezeguet and Gyan has generated an unprecedented global interest and expectation in the domestic league.

Al Jazira, the 2010/11 champions, will be hoping to repeat their success this season, but there will be stiff competition from their title rivals.
Al Jazira, the 2010/11 champions, will be hoping to repeat their success this season, but there will be stiff competition from their title rivals.

If the chase for the 2011/12 Pro League title turns out to be the most compelling in the history of the country, or even the Gulf, and many believe it will, the success can be traced back to the summer of 2008.

In September of that year, Al Jazira paid Real Betis, the top-flight Spanish club, an eye-watering Dh52 million for Rafael Sobis, the Brazilian striker, and signed him to a five-season contract for a UAE record Dh65m.

Jazira raised the bar again the following summer when they parted with Dh85m for another Brazilian striker from Betis, Ricardo Oliveira signing a contract that easily eclipsed the amount committed to Sobis.

It was Al Ahli's turn to steal the limelight in 2010 when they agreed a lucrative deal with Fabio Cannavaro, a former Fifa World Player of the Year who headed to Dubai on the back of a World Cup triumph. As well as paying the former Italy captain as much as Dh22.5m per season, they recruited the former Leeds United manager, David O'Leary, as coach.

But then Al Wasl went and trumped everything that had gone before it by landing Diego Maradona, the joint Fifa Player of the Century, as their coach. It was a seismic appointment that shocked the football world. What had been three years of steadily rising expectations and cash outlays throughout the league exploded in a frenzy of acquisitions.

As Haider Ali, the then Al Wahda captain, said prophetically at the time: "It is a very significant development and paves the way for some of the world's best coaches and players to join the Emirati clubs."

The arrival of Maradona sparked the greatest spasm of activity yet in the UAE race for football glory:

Ÿ Ahli signed the former Bundesliga player of the year Grafite, the Chilean international Luis Jimenez and the Czech tactician Ivan Hasek.

ŸOnce Maradona was on station with Wasl, he secured the services of the Uruguayan striker Juan Manuel Olivera and the Argentine midfielder Mariano Donda.

Ÿ Jazira pried away the coach Franky Vercauteren from the Belgian club Genk on the eve of the Uefa Champions League season and brought in the Australia captain Lucas Neill.

Ÿ Sharjah plucked the Brazilian Edinho and the Iran international Iman Mobali from prominent Iran clubs.

Ÿ Baniyas upped the ante by signing the former France international and Juventus forward David Trezeguet.

Ÿ Ajman captured Ibrahima Toure, the leading scorer for the Iran powerhouse Sepahan.

Ÿ Al Nasr secured the Australia international Mark Bresciano, recently of Lazio.

Ÿ Al Ain perhaps outdid everyone by snagging the Saudi captain Yasser Al Qahtani, the Argentine international Ignacio Scocco, the Romanian playmaker Mirel Radoi and the Ghanaian and Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan, the first player to come directly to the UAE from the English Premier League.

The clubs who did not splurge in the international marketplace already had players they liked (Ciel and Carlos Villanueva at Al Shabab, Andre Senghor and Fawzi Bashir at Baniyas, Oliveira and Matias Delgado at Jazira, Hugo and Fernando Baiano at Al Wahda) or were busy acquiring talent from other UAE clubs (Nabil Daoudi by Dubai, Karim Kerkar by Ajman).

Three years after the dawn of the professional era in domestic football, we see a dozen teams with a glittering array of foreign footballers and decorated coaches and every last Emirati who gets paid to kick a football, including, of course, the whole of the national team.

What we also have on the nation's pitches is a product certain to be more closely watched by those outside the country.

Already, journalists from Argentina, Britain and Belgium have been dispatched to the UAE to file reports. The BBC has come calling.

Khalid Obaid, the Nasr team manager, said: "There have been a lot of big signings in the league and it's good that the UAE is now a famous country for sport. Before the big names came here, I am not sure many people had heard of us,"

Finally, on Saturday, we begin the race to decide who will be crowned the top club from what is shaping up to be the greatest season in local football history.

Hasek, whose Ahli team won the championship in 2009, a time which now seems rather like Pro League prehistory, said the league has reached a pinnacle.

"In the UAE, there is not a single team low in quality now," he said. "There are some really good coaches and the quality of players has also improved. You can see that even in the foreign players now. They are much bigger and better than ever before. So no one game will be easy for any team.

"If you see the teams who are probably not favourites to win the league, you can see them fighting really hard. So I believe every team is dangerous, and all of them have a chance of winning the league."

UAE clubs have signed well-known players in the past, but they were almost uniformly aged gentlemen in the final stages of their careers. George Weah and Phillip Cocu come to mind.

The current crop of recruits are far more likely to be in their primes. Gyan is 25, as are Ahli's Jakson Coelho and Wasl's Edson Puch. Jimenez is 27, Donda is 29.

It is difficult to imagine any side dominating the league the way Jazira did a year ago, when they won the title with three games in hand.

Maradona has created an attack-first side at Wasl. Baniyas finished second last year and added Trezeguet. Ahli have Hasek and Grafite.

Wahda boast Ismail Matar and Josef Hickersberger. Al Nasr have Walter Zenga coaching Ismail Bangoura and Carlos Tenorio. Ajman have Lebanon's best young player, the striker Hassan Maatouk.

Shabab were fourth last term and retained the coach Paulo Bonamigo and the forward Julio Cesar. Emirates follow on a year when they won the President's Cup and the Super Cup. Sharjah have Marcelo Oliveira, the No 2 scorer from last season.

Dubai boast Abubakr Camara and the Romanian coach Ion Marin. Al Ain have Cosmin Olaroiu and their four prominent foreign recruits.

Jazira are champions until someone displaces them, and at least half the clubs in the league expect they can do the job.

Ten questions to be answered in the Pro League this season

1. Can Diego Maradona lead Al Wasl to a championship?

2.Can Al Jazira go unbeaten at home again?

3.Which teams are at greatest risk of relegation?

4.How many coaches will last the season? Two did in 2010/11.

5.Will any team score as many goals as Jazira’s 64 last term?

6. Will anyone score as many goals as Andre Senghor’s 18?

7. Will Al Nasr end their 25-year league title drought?

8. Was the goal dip last term to 3.36 per game from 3.87 an aberration?

9. How many goals will David Trezeguet score for Baniyas?

10. How many goals will Asamoah Gyan score for Al Ain?


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