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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Newly formed Shabab Al Ahli Dubai club kick-start new season with victory over Hatta

New entity win their first Arabian Gulf League match 4-1 thanks to goals from Mohammed Marzouq, Tomas De Vincent and a Makhete Diop double

Makhete Diop, centre, is congratulated by teammates after scoring for Shabab Al Ahli Dubai club in their 4-1 win over Hatta. Pawan Singh / The National
Makhete Diop, centre, is congratulated by teammates after scoring for Shabab Al Ahli Dubai club in their 4-1 win over Hatta. Pawan Singh / The National

The venue is familiar, but the banners and the bunting are not.

Two giant insignia bear down from the main entrance to the Rashid Stadium, each glaring red and green in the mid-afternoon Saturday sun, each bearing the name of Dubai’s most recently established professional football club.

“Shabab Al Ahli Dubai” is emblazoned across the archway, extended from simply “Al Ahli”, the result of a merger in May when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, ordered that three clubs become one.

For all intents and purposes, Al Shabab and Dubai club have been dissolved into Ahli, giving the emirate a new footballing entity. From that, the club management hope will emerge a fresh superpower in UAE football.

Inside the Rashid Stadium, fans mulled around the stadium before their team’s kick off against Hatta, a match that opened Shabab Al Ahli Dubai’s 2017/18 Arabian Gulf League season. Thus, it was the beginning of a new era, too.

Not that everyone was in agreement. The majority of supporters were still sporting Ahli’s colours, most wearing last season’s kit, a hark back to the club that had become one of the most successful in recent times.

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Saeed Jassim, a Dubai resident, has been coming to the Rashid Stadium for match days since he was six, and he never really contemplated doing away with that tradition now. But 17 years on, it all felt a little strange.

“I don’t like it at the moment,” Jassim said. “But it’s still our club, so still we come. That’s why my friends are all here, and that’s why we are wearing the Ahli t-shirt. This is our home.”

The entrance of Rashid Stadium, home of Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club. Pawan Singh / The National
The entrance of Rashid Stadium, home of Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club. Pawan Singh / The National

Ahmed Abdullah used to take in matches just down the road, at Shabab. He is disappointed that, for now, the Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium will not host top-flight fixtures. However, he sees the amalgamated clubs as a chance to finally celebrate a league title - even if it will not quite mean as much.

“It is strange, but we must focus on our new team,” Abdullah said. “We can be stronger. It is a new club, and a new challenge.”

New signage of the Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club at the Rashid Stadium. Pawan Singh / The National
New signage of the Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club at the Rashid Stadium. Pawan Singh / The National

The challenge is obvious, and it is not confined solely to the pitch. Shabab Al Ahli Dubai must build not only its brand, but appeal to a new fan base also. Some merchandising will help, although for the first round of the AGL, the club shop was sparely stocked, save for last season’s Ahli, Shabab and Dubai jerseys. They were selling for a knockdown price, at Dh35 a pop.

Likewise, the stands were thinly populated, but that probably had much to do with the 5.35pm start and the incredibly humid conditions.

For those who did brave the heat, and for who resist change, or at least rail against it, some comfort could be found in the home dugout. There, Romanian tactician Cosmin Olaroiu took up his usual position, just as he has done for the previous three seasons with Ahli, a spell that includes two AGL crowns.

Olaroiu has spoken these past few weeks of the difficulty of the situation, of having to take the overspill from Shabab and Dubai and supplement an admittedly already well-stacked Ahli. There have been delays in adding to the squad, most notably in the slots allocated for foreign players.

There has been fresh speculation, as well, that Olaroiu features highly on the Football Association’s shortlist to fill the sudden vacancy with the UAE national team. Even so, even with all the uncertainty and the upheaval, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai expects.

For what it is worth, a starting line-up that comprised seven former Ahli players and four formerly of Shabab dispatched Hatta 4-1. They had to come from behind to do so. Ahli's Makhete Diop scored either side of Shabab's Mohammed Marzouq. Tomas De Vincent, Marzouq's teammate last season, rounded off the night with a well-taken goal.

After a summer of change, life at Shabab Al Ahli Dubai had begun just as they wanted.