x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Pro League: Erikkson and some myths about UAE league's quality

The truth is a bit different. Diego Maradona never had a private jet at his disposal, as is so often mentioned in media reports, nor did Fabio Cannavaro.

Asamoah Gyan, the former Sunderland player at 26 years of age, has proven the Pro League is not a retirement home. Imran Shahid / Al Ittihad
Asamoah Gyan, the former Sunderland player at 26 years of age, has proven the Pro League is not a retirement home. Imran Shahid / Al Ittihad

Sven-Goran Eriksson was a guest on BBC World Service's World Football podcast last week, talking about his role as technical director at Al Nasr and football in the UAE.

The Swede spoke of his desire to help end Nasr's long drought of titles - they last won the league in 1986 - and build a steady stream of quality players through the club's youth system. He also praised the positive changes he has witnessed through the years here.

The former England coach discussed money, as well, but did nothing to dismiss this grand illusion of Pro League clubs with an unlimited supply of cash, ready to write out cheques at whim.

The truth is a bit different. Diego Maradona never had a private jet at his disposal, as is so often mentioned in media reports, nor did Fabio Cannavaro.

Most of the clubs are sitting on huge debts and if not for the largesse of the Rulers, they would struggle to pay the salaries of even their basic staff.

Another enduring myth about football in the Middle East: it is a place where ageing stars come for one big payday before they hang up their boots, or a paid vacation. The interviewer brought up that subject as well.

He asked: "Can you see players reaching their peak, who are not past their peak, coming and playing here?"

But are they not here already? Asamoah Gyan was 25 when he arrived on loan at Al Ain from Sunderland in 2011. Nor is the 25-year-old Jires Kembo Ekoko, who left Rennes for Al Ain after a successful season in the French Ligue 1 and Europa League.

Luiz Jimenez was not past his sell-by date when he left Italy for Al Ahli in the summer of 2011. He is still 28 and has had plenty of offers to return to the Serie A since.

Takayuki Morimoto is 24 and he is here with Al Nasr. Emiliano Alfaro is the same age and has come on loan from Lazio. Ricardo Quaresma is not in his 30s, nor is Papa Waigo.

Yes, Philip Cocu came to Al Jazira when he was 36 and George Weah was 35 when he joined the same club in 2001. Cannavaro was 36, and very near the end, when he joined Al Ahli in 2010.

And, yes, the likes of David Trezeguet and Luca Toni were past their primes when they came here, to Baniyas and Nasr, respectively. (It should be noted, however, that both Trezeguet and Toni returned to prominent leagues after their short UAE adventures, the former to River Plate in Argentina and the latter to Fiorentina of Seria A.)

Overall, Pro League teams have been discerning buyers. Despite his impressive CV, Michael Owen failed to convince Al Shabab to hire him.

On the other hand, the league has also seen the likes of Jorge Valdivia, Rafael Sobis, Ricardo Oliveira and Carlos Villanueva come here at an age when they could have easily got into a club in Europe or South America.

There have many others who have moved on from here to play in some of Europe's top leagues. Ismail Bangoura, Ibrahima Toure, Ali Karimi and Masoud Shojaei are just a few on that list.

A look at the birth dates of current foreign players in the Pro League would also bust that myth.

Of the 56 overseas players currently here, 19 are on the other side of 30 and the average age is 28. The youngest is the 21-year-old Iraqi Ahmed Ibrahim at Al Wasl. The oldest are the two 34-year-olds, Grafite and Mohammed Aboutrika. But how many leagues round the world would turn away those two? Oliveira is 33, but does anyone believe he no longer can play?

Agreed, not many of the foreign pros here might be household names, in global football. And no one is claiming the Pro League is ready to rival the English Premier League or the Spanish Liga. But the Pro League is not a retirement home, either.

arizvi@thenational.ae

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