x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Quality not quantity is the solution for Pro League

The short domestic fixtures list certainly will be mentioned today when the topic of a 14-side Pro League is mooted at a Pro League workshop at the Yas Hotel.

Several adjectives come to mind when examining the Pro League schedule. "Abbreviated" is one of the first on the list.

The domestic league provides for only 22 tests of its members. It is a stunted season in comparison to those of England, Spain and Italy, where top-flight teams play 38 league matches each. Or the 34 played in Germany and Holland.

Closer to home, clubs in Iran play 34 league games and those in Saudi Arabia 26.

In each case, those clubs are allowed more chances to demonstrate their quality, or lack of same.

Over a 22-game schedule, a few early injuries or bad breaks can leave a side hopelessly buried. Al Ain could tell you about it.

The short domestic fixtures list certainly will be mentioned today when the topic of a 14-side Pro League is mooted at a Pro League workshop at the Yas Hotel.

Fourteen clubs means 26 league matches, when applying the standard convention of one game home and away with the other 13 sides.

Four more league matches would represent four more instances when every Pro League side would play their best 11, and that would provide a boost to the domestic football product.

The Etisalat Cup is an interesting competition, but it is a clear No 3 in the domestic hierarchy, and many teams rest their best players in it, the same players they expect to play every league match.

Fans, too, pay far closer attention to the 22 league games than they do the 10 Etisalat Cup group-stage games, and a future with more league matches, in tandem with fewer Etisalat Cup games, would be a welcome improvement in competition.

Further, making a commitment to an expanded league schedule would help erase the momentum-killing breaks of 45, 41 and 32 days that afflicted this season's league fixture list.

When the final matches are played on Sunday, the league will have needed an astonishing 282 days to play those 22 matches per side, a rate of one league game every 13 days and one home match every 26.

So, is a 14-team league the answer to domestic football woes?

Not quite.

The primary issue is quality. A case can be made that the country does not have 12 strong sides, never mind 14.

In the past decade, only one club has emerged from the lower divisions and become a significant player in the title chase, and that is Baniyas, located in the growing suburbs of Abu Dhabi.

But even with Baniyas added to the mix, we have only nine clubs who enter a season expecting to win a championship, or at least compete for one. One of those is Al Nasr, who last won the league in 1986. Another is Sharjah, who last lifted the trophy in 1996.

Al Dhafra, based deep in the desert at Madinat Zayed, have never been in the title chase. Neither have Dubai and Kalba, who were at risk of relegation as games kicked off last night.

The two clubs coming up next season, Emirates and Ajman, were relegated a year ago. Emirates had several highlights in the past 14 months, from winning the President's Cup last April to taking the Super Cup in August and winning twice in the Asian Champions League this year, but they took only 14 points from 22 league matches last season. Ajman were even more feeble, with eight points in the league.

The shortage of quality sides would not be quite as dire had Al Shaab, a Sharjah side who reached the President's Cup final as recently as 2004, not crashed out of the league in 2009 and all but disappeared. Or had Al Khaleej or Hatta, members of the top flight within the past four years, showed any signs of Baniyas-like progress.

Fourteen Pro League sides? Easy enough to find teams. Hard, though, to find competitors.

If the league decides to expand, it must hope that exposure to the top flight will create more contenders than we can find at the moment.