President's Cup no fun without the minnows
The President's Cup will be less fun this season. The country's answer to England's FA Cup is now perilously close to being a knockout competition for the 12 Pro League sides, and the tournament is poorer for it.
The FA have allowed only four second-tier clubs into the 2011/12 event, which begins on Saturday; a year ago, all 16 lower-division sides competed in the first round, and 26 teams in total fought for the nation's second-most-important championship.
The list of cup clubs a year ago included several from towns hardly bigger than hamlets and evoked romantic notions of footballers from oases deep in the country's interior, like Hatta, Al Rams, Al Hamra and Al Quwwat Al Musallaha.
To be sure, most of the little sides struggled. Al Jazira dispatched Ras Al Khaimah 7-0 in the first round and, perhaps discouraged, the latter ceased operations a few months later. Al Wasl drubbed Al Taawon 8-0; Al Ain ousted Masfut 5-0.
But the small clubs staged some delicious upsets, too. Dibba Al Fujairah shocked Dubai 2-1, with both of their goals coming in the final 10 minutes. Al Thaid, a Sharjah club, overcame a pair of deficits and won a 4-2 decision over Kalba, who at the time were in the Pro League.
The biggest surprise was achieved by Masafi, a Fujairah club coached by a Sharjah police officer and who play at the lowest level of domestic football, the B group of the First Division. The Moroccan Mohammed Amine converted a penalty in the sixth minute, and Masafi rode that to a 1-1 draw and a 4-3 penalty shoot-out victory over Sharjah, whose collection of eight President's Cup trophies is the most extensive in the land.
Masafi advanced to the quarter-finals, albeit via a forfeit by Al Ain, where Al Wahda finally beat them 2-0.
Al Thaid also reached the final eight before Julio Cesar, the highly-paid Brazilian, scored twice in a 3-0 Al Shabab victory.
The four lower-division sides in the current President's Cup represent the best of a recent tournament, ironically named the FA Cup, and each play in the upper half of the division.
Two of them, Al Dhafra and Kalba, played in the Pro League last season. A third, Al Khaleej of Sharjah, played in the top flight as recently as 2008/09.
Only Dibba Al Hisn, a Sharjah enclave bordering the Gulf of Oman, can be considered a rank outsider. A year ago, we had a dozen Dibbas.
Dhafra and Kalba play in Dubai on Saturday, leaving only two first-round match-ups between top-flight sides and those from the lower division - Ajman versus Dibba and Sharjah versus Khaleej. Otherwise, the President's Cup is a tournament of big clubs facing big clubs, which is what we have during the Etisalat Cup as well as the Pro League season.
Certainly, some of those are interesting. Al Nasr and Baniyas will play in the Asian Champions League next year, but one of them will go out of the cup in the first round. Al Wasl and Al Ahli represent a collision of celebrity coaches, in Diego Maradona and Quique Sanchez Flores, respectively, each of whom would like to win a trophy this season.
However, Wahda and Dubai meet for the third time in four weeks across three competitions; Al Ain and Emirates represent a match that may fail to excite even Garden City fans; and the holders Jazira and Shabab get a rematch of their Pro League game from last week.
By the time of the cup semi-finals, on January 24, the participants are likely to be four of the nation's biggest clubs, and we likely will be glad of two match-ups of near equals.
But on this first weekend, some of the sheen is off the President's Cup. Those fascinating meek-v-mighty match-ups have gone missing.