x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Asian Champions League: 'Family' atmosphere has brought stability to Al Shabab

Commitment to the club and manager has seen Al Shabab regularly achieve success on meagre means, writes Ahmed Rizvi.

Al Shabab coach Marcos Paqueta was under fire after the team’s slow start to the season but the club stuck with the Brazilian and their faith has paid off.  Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Al Shabab coach Marcos Paqueta was under fire after the team’s slow start to the season but the club stuck with the Brazilian and their faith has paid off. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Ask football fans across the UAE who their favourite Pro League club is and Al Shabab would be unlikely to feature in many top threes, on paper easily forgotten behind more glamorous names such as Al Ain, Al Jazira or Al Ahli.

Shabab are not the league's most fashionable side and the empty stands at their home games testify to that. Yet, if there was a ranking based purely on value for every penny spent, they would be right at the top.

Regularly in the news for their financial woes, Shabab are a club of modest means, unable to match the spending power of Al Ain, Ahli or Jazira.

On the pitch, though, Shabab have been more than a match for the financial heavyweights of late, winning a title, or at least reaching a final, for each of the past six years.

One of the top clubs of the 1990s, when they won league titles in 1990 and 1995, and three President's Cup (1990, 1994 and 1997), Shabab returned to winning ways with the 2007/08 title.

They reached the final of the President's Cup in the next two seasons, and in 2011, were the Etisalat Cup and GCC Champions League winners.

Last season, they were in the Etisalat Cup final again and finished third in the league. This season, they are in the final of the President's Cup, and more notably, are the only UAE side through to the second round of the Asian Champions League.

This was a great feat after losing three of their four games in Group B. Victory in their final game against Pakhtakor in Tashkent saw them qualify in second place, with the reward being a two-legged last-16 clash with Iranian side Esteghlal, with the first leg on Wednesday night in Dubai.

Earlier in the season, Shabab seemed in the doldrums, losing five of their first eight league matches and winning just one.

Coach Marcos Paqueta was under pressure, but the club management put their put foot down, backing the Brazilian to the hilt.

Sami Al Qamzi, the chairman of Shabab's board of directors, said at the time: "Paqueta has had remarkable success in the past, with different teams and clubs, winning championships and trophies with them.

"We greatly value the work being done by him here at Shabab in order to achieve our objectives.

"We discussed all the options available to the management and we believe the situation demands we deal with it rationally."

The Shabab management has always put rationale ahead of emotions when making decisions and it shows in their selection of foreign players.

They refused to be bewitched by Michael Owen's marketing appeal last summer and chose the faceless duo of Edgar Bruno and Luiz Henrique instead.

"In Shabab, we are not looking for big names," said Saeed Al Marri, a Shabab board member. "We are looking at players who will be most useful for the team. The most important thing for us is to maintain the stability of the team and keep our players and coaching staff."

Since the 2007/08 season they have had only four coaches – Toninho Cerezo, Abdulwahab Abdulqader, Paulo Bonamigo and Paqueta. Only two of them were dismissed – Cerezo and Abdulqader, within two months of each other following a disappointing start to the 2009/10 season.

Bonamigo then took over the reins, and would have been at the helm for a fourth season if he had not walked out, two days after signing an extension, last summer.

"I realise I haven't worked with so many coaches here," said Marcio da Silva, who has been employed at Shabab for close to 11 years now as a fitness or assistant coach.

"In the past six years, we've had only four coaches. Some clubs have four in a season. If you compare this with other clubs, it really shows that the philosophy of this club is the right one. They bet on quality coaches and then back them to the hilt, they give him time and their full support. I guess this is a very positive point."

The club management have also been able to provide an encouraging atmosphere for players.

"Al Shabab is like my home," said Adel Abdullah, the team captain. "You hear players saying this very often about their clubs, but I really mean it and I am proud to be saying this. They have provided me everything."

Ciel and Azizbek Haydarov expressed similar sentiments when they extended their contract at the start of the season.

"I did have offers from some local and Russian clubs, but I have decided to stay at Shabab because I feel comfortable here," Haydarov said. "There is a great family atmosphere within the team."

Ciel's problems away from the field with alcohol have seen the Brazilian thrown out of seven clubs in the two seasons before his arrival at the Dubai club in January, 2011. At Shabab, he has found "friends" who have helped him rediscover his love for football.

This camaraderie has also been a crucial ingredient of Shabab's success. The players have stuck together through the good times and bad, even though they have not always been paid on time.

"We are trying our best to fulfil our obligations towards the players," Al Qamzi said. "Often, they have had to wait long for their entitlements, but they have never protested about the delays. They have stuck together like a family."

Given their financial difficulties, Shabab's success is even more praiseworthy and Paqueta is proud of being at the helm of such a team.

"Shabab are not the richest club in the UAE," he said, "but we have shown that money alone is not enough to create a brilliant team."

arizvi@thenational.ae

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