x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Big think has helped Al Ahli soar to the top of UAE football

The Dubai club could lift all four trophies this season, the result of hiring the best players and coaches, starting with Fabio Cannavaro and Quique Sanchez Flores, writes Paul Oberjuerge.

In Cosmin Olaroiu, left, and Fabio Cannavaro, Al Ahli have the best backroom staff in the UAE. Satish Kumar / The National
In Cosmin Olaroiu, left, and Fabio Cannavaro, Al Ahli have the best backroom staff in the UAE. Satish Kumar / The National

Al Ahli are on the cusp of the greatest season in the history of UAE football. They should secure the Arabian Gulf League championship on Thursday night. They play for the League Cup on April 19 and the President’s Cup on May 18. The first treble in the country’s history beckons.

We know where Ahli are – atop the domestic game. What is not quite as obvious is how they got there.

One decision presents itself as a viable starting point: when Ahli signed Fabio Cannavaro to a two-year contract, in June of 2010, a bold and history-changing deal worth as much as Dh22.5 million a season.

On the pitch, it had little impact. Cannavaro was 37 soon after the 2010/11 season began and he seemed oppressed by the heat and discomfited by the style of play. He eventually gave in to a baulky knee and missed the final months of the season. The club were a miserable eighth in a 12-team league, just as they had been the year before.

But bringing in the veteran defender had a positive impact not as easily observed: it gave the club instant credibility. Cannavaro, the captain of Italy’s 2006 World Cup winners. Cannavaro, the Fifa player of the year. Cannavaro, the “galactico” at Real Madrid, along with Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham, and the man who featured at Juventus and Inter and Napoli.

Cannavaro, the man who signed with Al Ahli of Dubai.

He retired as a player in the spring of 2011, but he stayed on in Dubai. He had come to appreciate the city, just as Ahli officials had come to appreciate him.

He took on a role as “team ambassador” and the Italian’s cool class stuck to the franchise like glitter on paint. He still can be seen in the VIP seats at any Ahli match, a reminder of the club’s famous capture.

With that one move, Ahli – and Dubai – showed they could attract and hold one of football’s elite personalities. Others followed.

One was Grafite, the Brazilian striker who had been the Bundesliga’s top scorer in 2008/09 and has not stopped putting away goals since he arrived. Another was Luis Jimenez, formerly of Lazio, Inter and West Ham. Ahli had interest from all sorts of expats and gave cameos to several, including Ricardo Quaresmo and Jakson Coelho. Not all worked out, but a line of foreigners keen to join Ahli seemed to be forming in Dubai and extending to London.

Equally as important, elite Emirati players caught Ahli fever.

The limit of four expats a side usually means the club with the best Emiratis will dominate domestic competition because they are the majority on the pitch. The talent pool from a population of barely one million is not deep, which domestic coaches, current and former, could tell you about.

There are, perhaps, 25 very good players and then a fairly rapid diminution of quality.

Basheer Saeed may have been the first who said he wanted to go to Ahli. He was a popular defender at Al Wahda and helped them win a title in 2010. A year later he asked to go to Ahli, and Wahda sent him.

Ahli also collected the best player from Sharjah, Abdulaziz Sanquor, the defender, as well as Abdulaziz Haikal from Al Shabab. They added Majed Naser, the goalkeeper from Al Wasl, as well as his successor, Ahmed Mahmoud. Then, this season, the two best players (by coach Marcos Paqueta’s admission) from Al Shabab, the Brazilian winger Ciel and the Emirati defender Walid Abbas.

On Sunday, Ahli came to Abu Dhabi to play Al Jazira, a club who, in theory, could give them trouble, but Ahli dominated from beginning to end and won 3-1.

The team sheets revealed some startling statistics: Ahli have no fewer than six members of the UAE national team – which may be better at present than it ever has been – and all six of them have a good chance to be in the UAE first team when next they play. That would be Ahmed Khalil, Ismail Al Hammadi, Majed Hassan, the two Abdulazizes and Abbas.

Jazira, meanwhile, put three members of the UAE national team on the field – all starters, but half Ahli’s number. Where Ahli have scored big, though, is with their two most recent coaching hires.

Quique Sanchez Flores was brought in ahead of the 2011/12 season and the Spaniard, who played for Real Madrid and coached Valencia, Benfica and Atletico Madrid, led Ahli to the League Cup in his first season and to a President’s Cup victory in the second.

When Sanchez Flores left, Ahli hired Cosmin Olaroiu away from Al Ain. The Garden City club had taken the previous two league titles under his mentorship and he is about to win a third. So, Ahli secured the best coach, too.

They need one point in their final four matches, beginning tonight versus Wasl, to clinch the club’s sixth league plate. (Al Ain have the most titles with 11.)

They play Jazira in the League Cup final and meet Al Ain with the President’s Cup at stake.

Three titles there for the taking and they still have a chance to advance to the final 16 of the Asian Champions League, leaving open the possibility of an extraordinary four titles in one calendar year.

A nice place to be for a super club in the making, the country’s most glamorous team and a vortex that has been sucking up the biggest names and the best talent. Starting with Fabio Cannavaro.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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