x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Arabian Gulf League: Sharjah realise patience a virtue in UAE football

Back in the top tier, Sharjah have learnt from past mistakes and are investing time and patience in coach Paulo Bonamigo and his players, writes Ahmed Rizvi.

The rebounding Sharjah team, under coach Paolo Bonamigo, right, have announced their intentions with a convincing win over Al Jazira in the League Cup last week. Photos by Ravindranath K / The National
The rebounding Sharjah team, under coach Paolo Bonamigo, right, have announced their intentions with a convincing win over Al Jazira in the League Cup last week. Photos by Ravindranath K / The National

A year ago, on September 14, to be precise, the Sharjah dressing room was gloomy. The team had just defeated Emirates 2-1 in the final round of the four-team play-offs, but the result was not enough for them to clinch a spot in the expanded Pro League.

The players had wept bitterly on the pitch, after the final whistle at the Al Shabab's Al Maktoum Stadium, and the crying continued in the changing rooms. The Sharjah fans in the stands could not hold back their tears, either.

Sharjah, we had kept hearing through the past months, were too big to fail. They were "The King", with a legion of proud fans around the country. But the inevitable happened.

Mismanagement has been the bane of many empires, so how could Sharjah be an exception?

The warning signs had been around for some time, but there was no end to the chaos. Managements changed, but not the revolving-door policy.

In the preceding season, Sharjah had four different managers, with Romanian Valeriu Tita being hired and fired twice.

Seven different foreign players represented the club that season, including one who was registered and discarded twice in the two transfer windows.

The club eventually paid the price for all the disarray, finishing at the bottom of the 2011/12 league table. They could not make use of the opportunity that came their way following the decision to expand the 12-team Pro League to 14, and Sharjah were relegated to Division One for the first time in 13 years.

But they are back now, wiser from their past mistakes. And on September 14 – that date of infamy in their history – Sharjah will open their league campaign at Al Wasl.

"I have been saying this right through," said Ahmed Mubarak, the director of Sharjah's first team and a man at the forefront of the changes at the club.

"Whether it's the players or the coaching staff, let's give them two or three years.

"When you change three or four coaches in a year, or the players, it becomes very difficult for the team … any team. If you hire a coach, give him enough time, give him whatever support he needs and give him encouragement. If you do that, the coach will have the confidence to put together a proper plan for the team and implement his ideas.

"You cannot just look at the results of today – you have to look at the future. You cannot be impulsive and short-sighted, or look for short-term gains and quick fixes."

Driven by Mubarak's pleas, and the humbling experience of playing in Division One, Sharjah's management seem to be on the path of reformation.

Returning to the rechristened Arabian Gulf League after finishing second in Division One, the club immediately appointed a man known for his astuteness, Paulo Bonamigo, at the helm of the team.

Bonamigo, who was dumped unceremoniously by Al Jazira in the middle of last season, is a respected tactician after his work at Al Shabab.

Under the Brazilian's guidance, the Al Mamzar club were able to punch well above their weight, despite their lack of resources.

"I believe things have changed," Mubarak said. "Hopefully, you will see Bonamigo here for two or three years.

"We have a lot of young players and the coach will need time to work with them. It's a long process - it's not about one win or one loss. You need to keep working all the time.

"So I am really hopeful that Bonamigo will stay here for a long time and help build a strong Sharjah team for the future."

With his appointment, Sharjah had ticked the first box. Bonamigo, as his wont, then went about gathering the best talents that his limited budget could buy.

Remember Ciel, who had gone through nine different clubs in two seasons before he came to Shabab?

First, Bonamigo brought in Ze Carlos, an Asian Champions League winner and prolific goal scorer, who was not getting along with his coach at Chinese club Changchun Yatai. Sharjah gave him a two-year contract. If you see his intensity in training, you can vouch that he is a sound investment.

The club then added Mauricio Ramos to their roster. The centre back, 28, was the winner of the Copa da Brasil with Palmeiras in 2012 and was a fan favourite at his Brazilian club, and boasts success against the likes of Neymar and Ronaldo.

Ramos was convinced by former Al Ain star and his Palmeiras teammate Jorge Valdivia to take up the Sharjah offer.

Then came the man who had kept Lionel Messi on a tight leash during South Korea's 2010 World Cup match against Argentina and stopped him from scoring: Kim Jung-woo.

Playmaker Fellype Gabriel, a member of the Brazilian team at the 2005 World Youth Championships, was brought in from Botafogo to complete the quartet.

That is one foreign player for every quarter of the playing field. And then Sharjah made sure the team had enough experienced Emiratis spread across the pitch to complement their emerging players.

So they retained the services of the likes of Salem Khamis, Ahmed Khamis, Badr Abdulrahman, Saleh Basheer, Ahmed Traore and Abdullah Darwish – all league and cup winners at their previous clubs.

"I am very happy to have them on the team," Mubarak said. "You cannot just bring four foreign players and put them in with young, inexperienced players.

"It is important to have experience in the team – players who have played at that level.

"The one thing I have noticed about these big players is that they are always willing to help the younger players.

"I believe our current team, whether you consider the local players or the foreign professionals, is better than what we had two or three years ago. But of course, proof of that will come only once the matches start. You cannot prove anything in friendly matches."

Sharjah served notice of their intent of that in an emphatic 3-0 win at Al Jazira in a League Cup match on Sunday.

"The secret of our successful start is the long preparation we have had," said Bonamigo, who gathered his team in early July and had two overseas camps in Turkey and Germany.

"The long time we spent together made sure the players understand my philosophy of coaching and understand each other."

But, Bonamigo said, his "big project" at Sharjah goes beyond one win or one season. "I am really proud to be at a club with such a long history," he said. "I want to build a really strong Sharjah team that can compete for titles. That is my mission here, my ambition."

And to reach those lofty targets, Mubarak said, the team and the Sharjah management will need to keep working hard, with the same intensity.

"If you want to make things easier for you, you have to make sure you work really hard," he said. "You need to work, work and work, and that is what we have been doing at Sharjah over the past year – all of us, the management, the players, the coaching staff.

"If you stop working and start to believe that you are a good team, things will get difficult for you."

And that is lesson Sharjah have learnt through their debacles of 2012. Those tears are still fresh in their memories and the club's management and players are determined to make sure there will be no repeat in the coming years.

arizvi@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE