x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Pro League: The case for and against the 2012/13 expansion

John McAuley and Ahmed Rizvi debate the merits of this year's expanded Pro League, and what impact it will have on UAE football.

Al Shaab's Nasser Khamis battle for the ball during the first half of their Etisalat Cup. Al Shaab have made it back into the Pro League but will play their home games at Sharjah's ground.
Al Shaab's Nasser Khamis battle for the ball during the first half of their Etisalat Cup. Al Shaab have made it back into the Pro League but will play their home games at Sharjah's ground.

Ahmed Rizvi explains why he believes the expansion will lead to more opportunties for homegrown players to develop in the Pro League.

Hassan Mohammed was one of the most impressive Emirati players in the Pro League last season.

He played a crucial role in Dubai’s survival in the top flight, especially towards the end when the Al Awir club won three of their last four matches to keep their place in the elite division.

He scored four goals in those wins.

During the season, he had a tally of nine in the league, which was the best haul by an Emirati and more than total scored by the prominent expatriates Fernando Baiano (eight) or Yasser Al Qahtani (seven).

The 22-year-old midfielder also struck six goals in the Etisalat Cup.

Yet, if you ask the regulars from the media on the league circuit, few have actually watched him play.

And he has been playing for Dubai since 2008, spending the first two seasons of his career in Division One before making his professional debut in 2010/11 as his club returned to the top division for the first time since 2006/07.

Mohammed’s first season in the professional division was not great, he scored just three goals in 19 matches in the Pro League and two in seven Etisalat Cup games.

But in the second season, he came into his own and, seeing his obvious quality, Walter Zenga made him one of his first signings of the season at Al Nasr.

If Dubai had been relegated after just one season in the top division, the chances are we might have never heard of Hassan Mohammed.

And there could be many others like him playing in the lower divisions, waiting for that opportunity to grow, to improve by playing against the best and reach that next level.

For the sake of UAE football, it is crucial they get this chance and expanding the league is the best way of ensuring that.

Critics of a bigger league claim it will dilute the competition.

They will probably show last year’s Pro League table as proof – the difference between the champions Al Ain and bottom-placed Sharjah was 44 points.

But it is the same around the globe.

Wolverhampton Wanderers finished 64 points behind Manchester City in the English Premier League; the difference between Real Madrid and Racing Santander in Spain was 73 points; in Italy, Cesena finished 62 points behind Juventus in Serie A.

In this millennium, Madrid and Barcelona have won 10 of the 12 league titles and Valencia have won the other two. Yet, the Primera Liga has 20 teams competing.

There will always be difference between the top and bottom teams, but for the overall development of football in the country, and to keep the feeder system for the top teams alive, you have to give opportunities to the have-nots.

Playing in the Pro League is the only incentive for the clubs here.

The derelict state of Al Shaab’s stadium and their financial woes show how even the country’s top clubs can suffer in the lower division.

Critics also complain about the burden of four additional matches for every team because of the expansion.

But this is not the first time 14 teams will be playing in the top division. It happened in 2004/05.

There were 16 teams in 1991/92 and each of them played 30 matches.

Besides, the increase in Pro League matches will be offset by a decrease in Etisalat Cup games.

Last season, each team played 10 matches in the group stages; this time, they will be playing eight in Group A and Group B, and six in Group C.

So let’s cut back on the moans and look forward to the increased fare.

Hopefully, we can find another Hassan Mohammed.

 

John McAuley explains why he feels an increase in quantity of matches will not necessarily increase quality in the league.

Few who witnessed the final-day drama of the Pro League play-offs would begrudge Al Dhafra and Al Shaab their place among the elite.

Third and fourth in last season's second tier, the duo made the most of a unique opportunity provided by the UAE Football Association; both wholly committed to the promotion cause, as evidenced by extravagant summer recruitment sprees. The risk was handsomely rewarded.

However, they take the top division to 14 teams, and the question remains: how will the league benefit from the incorporation of two more clubs?

The idea for expansion was borne, somewhat, from necessity.

As noted, the Asian Football Confederation's criteria demanded change, and the FA's decision to increase the number of Pro League participants will only have strengthened the relationship with the continental governing body.

Yousuf Al Serkal, who in May was appointed the FA president, was the driving force behind the changes.

Wise enough to understand the need to pacify both the AFC and the teams that form the top division, he made it clear during his candidacy that a bigger league was not only mandatory, but advantageous.

Al Serkal says his priority is the evolution of the UAE national team and the four extra rounds of matches, he suggested, affords fringe squad members, particularly young, local players, the possibility to gain valuable time on the pitch.

An extended campaign, it was considered, also gives incumbents of first-team spots more time to develop.

In theory, the introduction of two additional teams should provide that. In practice, it might not have the desired effect.

Recently, Mahdi Ali, the new UAE coach, attributed to Pro League clubs the current dearth of gifted strikers in the national team, criticising the majority who rely on imports to get their goals.

Dhafra and Shaab highlight his aggravation. In preparation for the play-offs, Dhafra spent significant sums on the African front men Amara Diane and Makhete Diop, while Shaab recruited Rodrigo Vergilio, a Brazilian, and Michael N'dri, a Frenchman.

Emiratis are not entrusted as marksmen.

Also, the acceptance that an expanded league equates to an increase in calibre throughout is naive.

Dhafra and Shaab proved their top-flight credentials by vanquishing Sharjah and Emirates, but the former was easily the worst side in the Pro League last season while their Ras Al Khaimah counterparts were only six points better.

The difference in standard between the top clubs this season - Al Ain, Al Nasr, Al Jazira and Al Ahli - and the four promoted sides - Kalba and Dibba Al Fujairah join Dhafra and Shaab - could constitute a chasm.

Surely quality, not quantity is the remit.

Clubs, too, have long raised the issue that the season stretches too far into the year.

The league continues until May, when temperatures are painfully high and the standard of football, dulled by the heat and humidity, can be painful viewing.

Meanwhile, a condensed fixture list puts further strain on players as it shortens rest periods during the winter months.

Change, also, is deemed to offer clubs financial rewards through increased exposure, but it remains unclear to what extent their coffers will be swelled considering the ongoing exasperation regarding attendances and viewing figures.

The plight of Sharjah and Emirates should not be forgotten.

Their respective boards may not have been bullied into binges this summer, but each will, until January at least, have to stick with players recruited in a perilous play-offs splurge.

On the surface, the expansion to 14 appears favourable.

Delve deeper, and its merits prove to rest on shakier foundations.

 

Who do you agree with - Ahmed Rizvi or John McAuley?  Leave a comment or have your say via Twitter: @SprtNationalUAE