x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Short-term focus for Pro League play-offs may prove costly

Given the summer spending spree, there may be more at stake than a place at UAE football¿s top table over the next two weeks.

Al Dhafra have signed 17 players in the summer, but could spent 2012/13 in Division One. Al Ittihad
Al Dhafra have signed 17 players in the summer, but could spent 2012/13 in Division One. Al Ittihad

The busiest club in the transfer market this season has not been Al Ain, the Pro League champions who dream of dominating Asia. Nor is it Al Nasr, seeking signings to transform last season's runner-up finish into a first title in 27 years.

Al Wasl cannot claim that distinction either, despite one of the country's most celebrated sides searching to recover from a campaign under Diego Maradona.

Instead, most of the boardroom bustle has been shared between four clubs vying for two spots in the country's top tier. Sharjah, Emirates, Al Dhafra and Al Shaab have bought in bulk these past few months; chequebooks have been exhausted.

The Pro League's decision to expand to 14 teams has created a frenzy among its play-off candidates, with Dhafra welcoming 17 new names to their roster. Sharjah, the fallen giants of UAE football, last week unveiled nine fresh faces at a single press conference.

Emirates took only 24 hours to coax four separate signings from Al Wahda. They joined another flood of recruits, snatched earlier from around the country.

Even Al Shaab, perhaps the least distinguished of the bunch, have taken what they consider a calculated risk, adding players with Pro League experience, and presumably Pro League salaries, in Rodrigo Vergilio, Michael N'dri and Khalid Darwish. The play-offs, it seems, have created panic.

Yousuf Al Serkal, the UAE Football Association president, has expounded the reasons for the extension to 14 teams. An elongated season, in theory, affords more playing time to Emiratis, and an increase in matches should encourage lower age groups to gain early exposure. The emphasis is on development.

Clubs, too, will benefit financially from heightened television exposure, while the Asian Football Confederation demands certain criteria - specific number of games played per team, length of season - for clubs to qualify to participate in the Champions League.

The change, though, required careful transition. The FA should be applauded for deciding against simply retaining Sharjah and Emirates, last season's worst Pro League teams, and adding the two sides promoted from the first division, Dibba Al Fujairah and Kalba.

The resolution to introduce a one-off, round-robin competition between the "relegated" clubs, and the third and fourth-placed sides from the league below, was a wise one.

If only such prudence was mirrored by the clubs. Their overly aggressive recruitment policy is fraught with danger; short-termism could engender long-term complications.

In swelling their playing staff, the quartet is effectively embarking on a game of win or bust. Seal promotion, and the expensive outlay on the men to get you there is perfectly justifiable. Fail to grasp one of the two spots, and you are left with a bloated payroll and a collection of discontented players staring at life in the second tier.

After all, the deluge of new additions does not guarantee success. Sharjah have brought in Pro League experience in the shape of Obaid Khalifa, Salmeen Khamis, Mohammed Yousuf and Badr Abdulrahman - all on loan from Al Ahli - yet they, and a plethora of arrivals, need to gel quickly.

Emirates, meanwhile, have a strong core of former Wahda stalwarts led by Haider Ali, but have they had time to forge relationships with the club's three new foreigners?

The same applies to Dhafra's new boys, such as Alexandre Oliveira, the former Wasl favourite, and Makhete Diop, the Senegalese forward; or Shaab's list of summer conscripts.

The battle for "promotion" begins tonight. Given the summer spending spree, there may be more at stake than a place at UAE football's top table.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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