x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Professional flash of Pro League provides no substance for national side

A glitzy professional league gains little respect when the national team is in the doldrums.


In the opening round of the President's Cup earlier this month, Ittihad Kalba and Al Dhafra produced one of the most exciting contests of that week, a five-goal thriller that was decided in the fourth minute of injury time.

Playing in front of a virtually empty Zabeel Stadium, the two Division One teams put on a spirited display, and kudos to them. But for a genuine supporter of UAE football, there should be disappointment in that game, and not purely for the lack of fans.

As is the case with Pro League teams, the attacks for Kalba and Dhafra were manned by foreign recruits. The two Emiratis who got on the scoresheets that night - Dhafra's Abdullah Abdul Hadi and Khalid Ali Khamis of Kalba - came in from further afield to score.

When even the Division One clubs are reluctant to use local talents as the spearheads of their attacks, why should anybody be surprised by the lack of striking options for the national team?

National team coaches, from Bruno Metsu to Dominique Bathenay to Srecko Katanec, have lamented the lack of strikers in the country and limited opportunities available for the few that exist. Yet precious little has been done to change things.

The top Pro League clubs remain happy with their band of sharpshooters from overseas and their coaches show little commitment and confidence towards local talents, and for understandable reasons. With the revolving door policies at the clubs and managements demanding instant results, none of the coaches here can dare take the Arsene Wenger route, as they will never get the time and backing he receives from his bosses at Arsenal.

Ahmed Khalil's fleeting appearances with Al Ahli this season are symptomatic of the problems plaguing the country's football.

The Dubai club's foreign pros have not been cutting opposing defences to shreds, yet Faisal Khalil has been struggling to get a look in and his younger sibling, Ahmed, has played only 101 minutes in the Pro League this season.

In the four league matches that he has been available, Ahmed has started just once, playing 79 minutes against Ajman possibly because Jackson Coelho had deserted the club.

Ahmed has spent two entire games on the bench; if this is the fate of the brightest young talent in the country, a former Asian Youth Player of the Year, what hope can the rest have?

The Football Association have been helpless. Mohammed Khalfan kept pleading with clubs to give their promising young talents more playing time, but nobody was listening.

Al Rumaithi stepped down as the president of the FA earlier this month, taking responsibility for the national team's disappointing results in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

His successor is unlikely to fare any better unless the clubs start listening and put national interest above domestic bragging rights and a few international headlines. If nothing else, the least they can do is farm out their best talents to clubs where the players are assured of playing time.

The FA might not be able to force the Pro League clubs, but they can certainly have their way with the 16 Division One teams. Turning that division into an "Emiratis only" league would be a good option. And if they should allow foreign players, it should be restricted only to the expatriates born and living here. You never know what that might turn up.

Another option would be to turn the President's Cup into an all-Emirati affair. That would force the Pro League clubs to accord a bit more respect to their local talents and offer a level-playing field for the Division One teams.

Something needs to be done, and urgently. A glitzy professional league gains little respect when the national team is in the doldrums.