x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Pro League has all the ingredients for success

High calibre player and coaching imports means this season is already shaping up to be the best yet.

The appointment of Diego Maradona, centre, as Al Wasl coach, has only helped fuel the notion that this season could be the most exciting since the league turned professional four years ago.
The appointment of Diego Maradona, centre, as Al Wasl coach, has only helped fuel the notion that this season could be the most exciting since the league turned professional four years ago.

One round of the Etisalat Cup and a Super Cup do not make for a large statistical or stylistic sample, but when has a scarcity of hard information ever kept football observers from arriving at sweeping conclusions such at this:

The Pro League is better than ever.

Better players, better coaches, better teams.

We could make a case that the league has been more formidable, season after season, for the four years since it became fully professional in 2008/09. One steady march upwards in quality that brings us to September 2011.

The current season already is notable for the quality of expatriate players, many of whom are in their prime.

Asamoah Gyan could be starting for an English Premier League side right this minute.

Grafite could still be in a Bundesliga first team. David Trezeguet still has "it" and so do Matias Delgado and Ricardo Oliveira, Marcelo Oliveira and Edinho, Juan Manuel Olivera and Mariano Donda, Hugo and Magrao, Ismail Bangoura and Carlos Tenorio, Jociel Ferreira and Julio Cesar … well, just scan the player lists and judge for yourself.

The trend in the recruitment of foreigners clearly is toward more established players, and younger men still in their primes, but it also includes the oft-overlooked addition this season of a fourth expatriate slot reserved for players who carry a passport from an Asian Football Confederation country.

That tweak of the rules has brought to these shores Azizbek Haydarov of Uzbekistan, Lucas Neill, the Australian captain, the Saudi scoring machine Yasser Al Qahtani, the Iranian playmaker Iman Mobali and so forth.

In the simplest terms, most UAE sides have gone from a first team that is 27 per cent "best foreigners available" to 36 per cent. If only our investments could climb nine per cent, year over year.

And these prodigies are led by the most impressive yet assemblage of coaches.

Six of the dozen men leading Pro League clubs also have coached national sides, including Argentina (Diego Maradona), Austria (Josef Hickersberger), Belgium (Franky Vercauteren) and the Czech Republic (Ivan Hasek), four nations which would make up a pretty scary World Cup group, now that we think of it.

Another of the six, Jorvan Vieira, somehow led Iraq to the 2007 Asian Cup championship, one of the most impressive achievements by any manager in the past decade.

A seventh coach (Walter Zenga) has coached two sides in Serie A, an eighth (Cosmin Olaroiu) won a top-flight championship with Steaua Bucharest and coached in the Uefa Champions League, and a ninth (Paulo Bonamigo) has directed some of Brazil's top sides as well as a top-division Portugal club, Maritimo.

These collections of talent on the pitch and in the dugout speak well of the competitive nature found in the Pro League's executives. They were not asleep when Al Wasl seemed to raise the stakes with their capture of Maradona, a seminal event that led to several bracing rounds of "We can match that!".

Al Wahda's Hickersberger, the only coach to have seen all four Pro League seasons, is withholding judgement on "best season ever", but he said: "I think the league will be more competitive than in years before. That's my opinion right now because of the efforts many clubs have made during the off-season, the investment of Al Ain, Al Ahli and Baniyas. There are big names now in the Pro League, and for sure it's more interesting."

Never have so many clubs looked capable of winning the league. The champions Al Jazira, of course. But what of the retooled Ahli and Al Ain? What of upwardly mobile Baniyas? What of the stalwarts Al Shabab and Wahda, Al Nasr and Sharjah?

And, of course, Wasl, where Maradona has brought an attacking style as well as his burning ambition to be considered among the planet's elite tacticians.

We count nine sides who certainly are thinking "championship", and it would be no surprise if Ajman, Dubai and Emirates put up their hands and said, "Overlook us at your peril".

The only potentially sour note in this Pro League crescendo is whether fans will join the chorus. The first round of cup matches were notable by their sparse attendances. Trezeguet made his debut in near privacy at Shabab. Maradona's first UAE match was seen by barely more than 3,000 at Jazira.

Football without supporters, well it would be like football inside a television studio: silent, cold and sterile. The league's executives have pushed UAE club football to what appears to be new heights. Now we wait to see if the fans will be along for the ride.


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