x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Arabian Gulf League: The blizzard from Oz

Since the “three foreigners plus an Asian” rule was implemented in 2011, UAE clubs are increasingly looking at Australia to fill that final expatriate spot. Here, the league’s current quartet of Australians speak to John McAuley.

Alex Brosque, No 10, is congratulated by Australia teammates, including Brett Holman, right, after scoring against Thailand. Getty Images
Alex Brosque, No 10, is congratulated by Australia teammates, including Brett Holman, right, after scoring against Thailand. Getty Images

THE CURRENT AUSTRALIAN PLAYERS

Brett Holman, Al Nasr

Position Forward

Age 29

Joined This summer from England’s Aston Villa

Previous clubs Feyenoord, Excelsior, NEC, AZ Alkmaar

Australia national team 62 appearances (9 goals)

Alex Brosque, Al Ain

Position Forward

Age 29

Joined September 2012 from Japan’s Shimizu S-Pulse

Previous clubs Feyenoord, Brisbane Roar, Sydney FC

Australia national team 21 appearances (5 goals)

Milan Susak, Al Wasl

Position Defender

Age 29

Joined this summer from Iran’s Sepahan

Previous clubs Adelaide United, Brisbane Roar, Tianjin Teda

Australian national team Called up to various training camps

Billy Celeski, Al Shaab

Position Midfielder

Age 28

Joined This summer from Melbourne Victory

Previous clubs Perth Glory

Australian national team 1 appearance

What attracted you to UAE football?

Brett Holman, Al Nasr Everything. I spoke to a couple of boys who had already played here – Alex Brosque, Mark Bresciano, Lucas Neill – before I made the decision. They said it was a professional set-up, a tough league. As a new challenge, this just jumped out at me. It was an offer that took to me – and my family were excited to try a new adventure and so was I. And the project here, given they want to win some trophies here, that excites me.

Alex Brosque, Al Ain It was a combination of a lot of things. When I heard the interest was there I did a bit of research and was very impressed with what I saw in terms of quality of club, the fact they were champions and playing in the Asian Champions League. And then I’ve a family, so you look at it from that aspect. I thought the lifestyle would be great and, of course, financially as well it makes sense, so everything for me ticked the boxes.

Milan Susak, Al Wasl Firstly, the many Aussies who have made the move here and have said good things about it – I spoke with Dino Djulbic at Al Wahda before deciding to come here – and, secondly, I like testing myself and trying different things.

Billy Celeski, Al Shaab: When I was younger I’d ambitions of going to Europe and playing abroad, but unfortunately because of some pretty bad injuries that didn’t eventuate. Then this opportunity came up. It was a good opportunity for me to see what football over here was like and to experience a different lifestyle as well.

What are your impressions of the league?

BH I’ve been impressed with the set-up. There’s a new coach [Ivan Jovanovic], who’s done some great things in Cyprus and achieved unbelievable results in the Uefa Champions League. The players are professional; the board, the staff, everything around the club is second to none.

AB It’s very underrated, especially back home. I’ve been impressed by not only the quality of my teammates, but players at all the clubs, both foreign and local. The set-up we have at Al Ain, and the training pitches and the coaches we’ve had and their approaches to training, it’s all been very impressive.

MS The professionalism at my club, the staff, has been really good, where they make sure all the boys follow the rules and programme. From the two games I’ve played, the tempo is a bit slower than other leagues I’ve played in. There’s slightly more space, but I was told once the league starts the tempo and intensity picks up.

BC It’s still quite early for me to judge anything in terms of games, as I’ve just played in one so far, but at our club in particular we’ve a good combination of foreigners and local players. The team’s quite close and we’ve a really good coaching staff.

How does it compare to the Australian A-League, and other leagues in Asia?

BH Tough question. Since I haven’t been there in years – I didn’t even play in the A-League but the old NSL (National Soccer League) – so I couldn’t compare to this. But it’s great the way the A-League’s developing, if you see the clubs and the fans they’re getting out there.

AB For me it’s on par with the A-League and having spoken about it to all the boys who’ve played in both, they agree. I’ve no doubt our team would do well against any A-League teams. The difficult thing here is the weather and conditions you play in. But take our team, go and play in much friendlier temperatures and we’d improve immensely. But I still think [Japan’s] J-League’s the best in Asia.

MS The A-League is more physical and faster; it’s a tough league. Sometimes it’s hard to compare because some other parts of Asia don’t have to play in the heat and humidity and that’s a big factor.

BC Initial thoughts are that they’re quite similar. Both have really good local and foreign players, but for me it’s just getting four and five games under my belt to see where it sits with the A-League.

How does a move here affect your international aspirations?

BH I don’t think it should affect me at all. At the end of the day it comes down to if you’re playing and if your conditioning is the right standard. And I don’t expect my fitness or quality to fall apart.

AB For me it comes down to the coach and the player himself. If the player is playing at a good enough level when he comes into camp and the coach is happy then there’s no problem. It’s down to each individual player to keep himself playing at a good level.

MS To be honest I don’t really think about it. Many Aussies have come here and still were part of the national team, so it doesn’t change anything. And if I’m doing well here hopefully it will be seen back home.

BC That’s up to personal opinions. Everyone will have their own view, but I don’t think it should hinder international call-ups at all. If you’re fit, playing week in, week out, and playing well, it’s just a matter of the national team coach watching you and seeing if you’ve got the quality to be selected.

What do you say to criticism from Australia – from the likes of ex-international Robbie Slater – who claim you’re taking a step down by coming to the UAE?

BH I haven’t read too much into it. That’s been coming out from Australia and maybe I can understand it a little bit because the media they’d rather see players playing in the A-League or Europe. But as I said earlier, this was exciting and a new adventure and I can’t see any reason why there should be criticism.

AB I understand the frustrations and I get where people are coming from. They’re basing the argument on the well-being of the national team and they want it to succeed. For me, a more worrying thing is not the fact that players are coming here, because the players who’ve come here have played at a good level and gone back. It’s that now there’s not as many young Australian players playing at the big clubs around the world, like there was in the recent past. And that’s probably where the frustrations come from.

MS Everyone has their own opinion. Personally, I don’t think it’s a step down because, as a defender, I’m coming up against good strikers week in, week out, strikers who have played in some big leagues and for their country. So every week it’s a good test.

BC The league has quality. The likes of Alex and Brett are both really good technical players and been around the national team set-up for quite a while now. And I hope they continue to be, because they’re important players for the country.

How can you change those perceptions?

BH If you look at the World Cup qualifiers, and then at a lot of the others teams who qualified through Asia, you see how difficult it’s getting and how tough we had it. It was a massive task to finally qualify, so football in this region is getting better. From grassroots up people are trying to change things and you can see that. People will soon start to realise that.

AB It’s difficult, because people there aren’t watching these games. It’s a lot about what the media says and thinks. And if people constantly come out rubbishing the league, people who don’t watch it, don’t talk about it and have never played in it, then it’s natural – people believe what they read and start to jump on the back of that. I don’t like getting into the argument back home, I let people make up their own minds. All it takes is a few good results and people stop talking about it.

MS Well, if you see players like Lucas Neill and Mark Bresciano coming to play in the UAE I’m sure we’ll then see many more Aussies wanting to make the move as well.

BC It’s tough because there’s still not that many Aussies here at the moment. It’s just about trying to get more to come over here. But the other foreigners play a role. There’s some terrific players coming from Europe and the rest of Asia, so in time the league will become stronger and then hopefully perceptions will change.

Why do you think UAE clubs are now opting for players from Australia?

BH It has to do with the fact that the players are available. If they aren’t then it’s always tough to get them to come. But Australians have a great mentality, they want to give 100 per cent in everything and it’s a little bit the same as the guys here. They’ve got a great work ethic. So it’s a good fit.

AB Since Australia’s joined the Asian Football Confederation I think it’s natural because we’re the second top-ranked team in Asia. Japanese players tend to go to Europe or stay and play in their own league, so it’s hard to attract them. So the next best is Australia and that’s why clubs would automatically look to there.

MS I think our mentality plays a huge part. We’re known to be hard workers and very disciplined. And also, some of the Aussies who have already been playing here, like Bresciano and Neill, have left a good impression.

BC As an Aussie footballer, we’ve got attributes people really want in their football teams here, in terms of leadership, structure and discipline. The players who’ve come before me have that quality and so they’re opening the door for the rest of us.

TWO UP, TWO DOWN

Performances by Australians last season

Mark Bresciano, Al Nasr

Despite an acrimonious departure, the versatile midfielder was a firm favourite at the club during 2011/12 – his only season in the UAE. Bresciano brought a wealth of experience, gathered across a decade in Italy’s Serie A, and never shirked responsibility on the pitch. He was top scorer for Nasr, too, with a tally of 10 goals in 17 league matches as Walter Zenga’s men finished second. Bresciano had a year remaining on his contract, but decided instead to join Qatar’s Al Gharafa.

Alex Brosque, Al Ain

The fleet-footed forward may have arrived late in last season’s summer transfer window – he made a September switch from Japan’s Shimizu S-Pulse – but he swiftly confirmed his talent, scoring four times in his first two matches. Capable of operating up front or anywhere behind a main striker, Brosque was a key component in Al Ain’s successful defence of their league title. He finished the campaign with 17 goals in 30 appearances across all competitions. A class act.

Nick Carle, Baniyas

Perhaps unfair given his club’s decision to employ him on the left flank – Carle conceded he was never blessed with great pace – but he failed to build on a relatively promising start. Preferring to play as an attacking midfielder, the on-loan Sydney FC star eventually lost his place in the side when Baniyas splashed out on Mohammed Aboutrika. While ultimately Carle did not prove a success, there is a strong sense he could have been better utilised.

Dino Djulbic, Al Wahda

Brought in halfway through last season, the imposing centre-back struggled to make an impression on the club’s management. Djulbic transferred from China’s Guizhou Renhe, signing a two-year deal on the recommendation of Branko Ivankovic, the then Wahda coach whom he had previously played under. With Ivankovic’s departure earlier this summer, the defender was deemed below standard as, despite his height, Wahda were still susceptible to high balls. A disappointing eight months.

jmcauley@thenational.ae