x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Al Shaab's quest to revive the glorious years in UAE football

The Sharjah club were home to the UAE's greatest player, but were almost disbanded at the start of the season. Sports round-up audio

With seven games of the Division One season left to play, Al Shaab are nine points off the promotion places.
With seven games of the Division One season left to play, Al Shaab are nine points off the promotion places.

Last week, as the Olympic team were winning for their ticket to London in Tashkent, Al Shaab were hosting a team of policemen from Abu Dhabi in a friendly game.

A few fans were scattered around the massive stands which have seen better days and games, especially during the years that the great Adnan Al Talyani wore their colours.

Al Talyani, who has a record 164 caps for the UAE and played at the 1990 World Cup, was part of the Shaab team that won the President's Cup in 1993.

The Khalid bin Mohammed Stadium, which has a capacity of around 18,000, would draw full houses in those days, particularly when Shaab hosted their fierce cross-city rivals Sharjah.

Times have changed. Shaab have been languishing in Division One for three years now, but the club's diehard supporters have not abandoned their team. They still come to the stadium - officials say around 4,500 for a league match - to cheer on their side, but that Wednesday evening, they seemed more interested in the live transmission from Uzbekistan.

Huddled around the television sets, they were urging Mahdi Ali's Under 23 team on, bellowing directions to the players. "Shoot, shoot", was a regular shout and all three of the UAE's goals were celebrated wildly.

Even the Shaab substitutes seemed more keen on the action in Tashkent, making regular inquiries about the progress of the game. A few tiers above these fans, sat Dr Abdulla Ali Sahu, the Al Shaab chairman.

In these tough times, he is hoping to be the club's Mahdi Ali, keen to turn things around for the ailing club.

"We are working hard in many different directions - on the strategic side, on developing our age-group teams in different sports, on creating a sustainable financial structure," Sahu said. "All of us, the different committees, are trying our best to put Shaab back where it belongs.

"If you want good results, you need to work hard. And results need time as well."

Shaab were fifth in the top flight in both 2007 and 2008, but an 11th-place finish in 2009 led to relegation to Division One.

The club did not bounce straight back, as many expected, and at the start of this season they seemed beyond repair.

They were in financial ruin and the club's management was toying with the idea of disbanding the high-maintenance football team.

However, a decree by Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammad, the Ruler of Sharjah, saved the team and his financial assistance has kept them afloat.

"I don't think you would see this happening in any other place in the world, where a ruler is paying more than Dh22 million for a club," Sahu said. "So we should appreciate that and try to benefit from it. We should work very hard, day and night, to show ourselves worthy of this generosity.

"Till now, I think we are moving in the right direction. We have spent too much in the past, but now we are trying to find a balance. We are trying to control our expenditures and save, we are being careful."

Such a state of affairs would have been unimaginable in the early days of 2008 when Shaab, with their exciting group of young Emirati and foreign players, were in the hunt for the league honours. But they fell away towards the end of the 2007/08 season - the last before the league turned professional.

The management had plenty to build on, but in a rather bizarre move, they decided on selling eight of their best players, including the two Iranians, Mehrzad Madanchi, who was voted the best foreign player of the season, and Ali Samereh.

Nabil Ibrahim, one of the mascots of the team in those days and now the captain, blames that decision for Shaab's relegation at the end of the 2008/09 season.

"They changed eight players," he said. "We lost all those players at one go and it is very difficult to play against the top sides with a new team. The youngsters need time. So obviously, you are going to go down."

Saif Mohammed was among the eight players traded by Shaab at the time. He was sold to Al Ain for a reported Dh10m, the biggest deal for an Emirati player at that time.

"It was not in our hands," said Mohammed, who is back at Shaab on loan until the end of the season. "The committee at that time needed money, so they let us leave. They could not afford to turn down the kind of deal Al Ain were offering. It was a lot of money and they accepted the offer.

"The team then got relegated and it was very sad for me. We never wanted Shaab to go down to this level, but I hope things will turn around now and we can return to the Pro League."

That hope hangs by a thin thread, though. Shaab are fifth in Division One with 21 points, nine behind the joint leaders Kalba and Dibba Al Fujairah. But they are not giving up. There are still seven matches to play and the team's Brazilian coach Sergio has been rallying his troops for the final push.

"The championship is not over and I keep telling that to my players," Sergio said. "We have been improving gradually, but unfortunately we have not improved enough to say we will be in the Pro League next season. Hopefully, we will go to that next level in the remaining matches and get a promotion.

"A big team like Shaab should not be playing in Division One. So all of us should work together to change that, work hard and get the results we need."

Ibrahim shares those sentiments.

"We really miss those days when we played in the top division," he said.

"I can easily go to another club and play in the Pro League, but this is not about me. This is about Al Shaab. Everybody knows they are a big team and the second division is really not the place for them."