x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Arabian Gulf League: Hugo Viana is now a valued veteran for Al Ahli

Hugo Viana's roller-coaster ride started with Sporting, the Portugal national team and now he is in Dubai, writes Paul Radley.

Hugo Viana, right, has a CV that includes a Europa League final, a Portuguese Cup victory and a European Championship appearance. He joined Al Ahli this summer. Al Ittihad.  Photo courtesy Al Ittihad
Hugo Viana, right, has a CV that includes a Europa League final, a Portuguese Cup victory and a European Championship appearance. He joined Al Ahli this summer. Al Ittihad. Photo courtesy Al Ittihad

Hugo Viana always was ahead of his time. Often, over the course of a career which has now brought him to a fourth country to ply his trade, that has been as much a curse as a blessing.

When the Portuguese playmaker arrived in Dubai to sign for Al Ahli earlier this summer, he was just 30.

Given his status in the game, he represents the sort of trophy signing who, in the past, looked to the leagues of the Middle East for their retirement plan. But at 30?

Fabio Cannavaro was five years older when he joined the same club to wind down his sparkling career. Phillip Cocu was 36 when he ended up at Al Jazira for the final act of his career and a last big pay day.

So is Viana's arrival the search for a premature pension? Or a sign of the increasing standards in the UAE's professional league? He suggests the latter.

"I'm prepared for this and I knew what it was like before I signed," said Ahli's new No 45.

"This league is not an easy league, like everyone says. Of course, it is different to Europe, but it is still a big league with big names and very good players."

Viana's career has been in fast-forward from the start. Rarely has he stopped to smell the roses.

He was the Young European Player of the Year, in 2002, when Newcastle United signed him; it seemed like a coup for the English club.

The Premier League team lavished £8.5 million (Dh48.3m) on a 19-year-old with one year's experience of first-team football, with Sporting Lisbon.

In a week when Gareth Bale seems set to move for 10 times that figure, it might not seem like much. Back then, it was a significant sum, a record fee for a teenager.

But it was a move too soon. He spent two seasons mostly bench-bound, and after his family failed to settle – despite his love for the club – off he went.

He flitted around clubs in Spain and Portugal, and the four-season spell at Braga, in his homeland, before he made the switch to the UAE, was the longest stay he has had anywhere.

It probably is no coincidence the time spent with his previous employers was also the most productive of his career, bringing with it a Europa League final and a Portuguese Cup winners medal.

"It was the club I had stayed with for the most time in my career," he said.

"I spent four years at Braga, I had some offers to leave in that time but I felt so good there. After four years, I thought it was the perfect time to leave."

His form at Braga even prompted a shock recall, five years after he last played international football, to the Portugal squad for last year's European Championship in Ukraine and Poland.

After moving to the UAE, he does not expect history to repeat itself.

When asked if he could play in Brazil 2014, he said: "I don't think I can. It is difficult to make the national team if you are playing in Dubai. I will work for the club and I won't be thinking about the national team."

His first official assignment in Ahli's new kit is likely to be a feisty one. The Super Cup against Al Ain on Saturday pits his new coach, Cosmin Olaroiu, against the manager's former side and the Romanian is likely to face a fiery reception.

However, Olaroiu is likely to have full support from his new charges, judging by the assessment made this week by Grafite, the Ahli captain. The Brazilian striker said of his new manager: "He cares about the life of the players and this is important for us, to feel confidence from the coach."

Now Viana, who arrived a month and a half ago during the height of Dubai summer, is eager to get going. "We have prepared well for this game and for the league season, and we are now excited to get started," he said.

pradley@thenational.ae

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