x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Ricardo Quaresma searching for that old magic in Pro League with Al Ahli

It has been a chequered career for Ricardo Quaresma, but Europe's loss could yet turn out to be the UAE's gain.

Newly acquired Al Ahli player Ricardo Quaresma will make his Pro League debut against Al Jazira on Saturday.
Newly acquired Al Ahli player Ricardo Quaresma will make his Pro League debut against Al Jazira on Saturday.

December 8, 2003. A packed, rain-sodden Nou Camp. Pre-Tiki-Taka Barcelona, without the injured new signing Ronaldinho, take on the Galacticos-era Real Madrid.

On the one side, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo and a ponytailed David Beckham.

On the other, a young Xavi and Carlos Puyol, and the Dutch striker Patrick Kluivert. But not much else to shout about. Except, perhaps, for the second-half introduction of a new signing from Sporting Lisbon, a gifted 19-year-old Portuguese winger for whom many were predicting greatness.

A 2-1 win for Madrid ensured a miserable night for the Catalans.

After the match, as my friend Will, with his decent Spanish-speaking skills, and I, with my non-existent ones, attempted to converse with a group of taxi drivers, one thing was clear: they were not pleased with Frank Rijkaard's team; indeed, it had been dismal performance by Barca.

They agreed, however, that they liked the look of the new Iberian kid.

For Ricardo Quaresma, signed by Al Ahli two weeks ago, things have not work out quite as planned since then. Over the next few years, his trademark step-overs, flicks, outside-of-the-boot shots and crosses, and even his ever-changing haircuts, became legend.

But, sadly, not by him.

Having humiliated Manchester United in a friendly in the summer of 2003, Quaresma's teammate at Sporting Lisbon, a 17-year-old by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo, had also secured his own dream move to the then-champions of England.

Only two years younger, Ronaldo has admitted that he modelled his own game on Quaresma's distinctive, flamboyant style. Like a footballing Harry Potter, it wasn't long before the apprentice became the world's greatest wizard.

Well, second greatest at least.

On January 7, Ronaldo stood on stage at the Ballon d'Or ceremony in Zurich; two days later Quaresma signed for Al Ahli in Dubai.

On Saturday, if deemed match fit, he could make his debut away to Al Jazira as the Pro League swings back into action.

It has been a chequered career, but Europe's loss could yet turn out to be the UAE's gain. Quaresma never settled in at Barca and left after one season. But such is his natural talent that throughout his career he remained a player managers were willing to take a chance on.

His next four years at Porto were arguably the best of his career, prompting Jose Mourinho to sign him for Inter Milan in 2008.

A loan period at Chelsea in 2009 interrupted his two season in Italy; neither move worked out.

Finally, in 2010, he joined the Turkish club Besiktas, where a turbulent two seasons led to his recent exit to Al Ahli.

It has been a similar story at the international level where he has consistently been overshadowed by Ronaldo, and even the inconsistent Nani. In 35 matches for his country, he has scored only three goals. The first of those goals, however, was quite simply glorious, a tantalising glimpse into what Quaresma could, and hopefully still can, do.

Words do little justice to that strike against Belgium on March 24, 2007, as phenomenal an effort as any Ronaldo has ever scored.

The question remains: will he produce such moments of sublime skill at Al Ahli? The club's supporters, indeed all Pro League fans, will hope so.

At 29, productive days could still be ahead of him. "I don't really know anything about the club or the league," Quaresma said after signing the 18-month contract, hardly a declaration to get the fans rushing to buy his shirt.

While there is no reason to doubt his commitment before he has even kicked a ball for Al Ahli, the Pro League's short history is littered with foreign stars who, to put it kindly, have performed less than spectacularly for their Emirati clubs. Still, for every Luca Toni and David Trezeguet, there has been a Ricardo Oliveira and Asamoah Gyan, professionals who have answered the sceptics with performances of genuine commitment.

The Quaresma story has a curious subplot. Rumours continue to make the rounds that Ahli are close to signing the Argentinian Pablo Aimar from Benfica.

The 33-year-old attacking midfielder, winner of two Spanish league titles with Rafa Benitez's Valencia, in 2002 and 2004, was once the latest in a long line of "new Maradonas".

Aimar also happens to be the idol of another Argentinian No 10; one Lionel Messi. So Rashid Stadium in Dubai might soon be home to the heroes of the two greatest players in the world today.

The "old Messi" and "old Ronaldo" may not have a great ring to them, but for Quaresma, in particular, the Pro League offers the latest chance at redemption, an opportunity to showcase the brilliance of almost a decade ago. The local fans, like those fuming Catalan taxi drivers, will give him every chance.

 

akahled@thenational.ae

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