x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Gai's goal is growth of the game

A little more than an year ago, club football in the UAE - by the admission of the powers that be - was languishing in a different age.

Al Wadha, in white, and Al Wasl are just two of 31 registered clubs in the United Arab Emirates.
Al Wadha, in white, and Al Wasl are just two of 31 registered clubs in the United Arab Emirates.

A little more than an year ago, club football in the UAE - by the admission of the powers that be - was languishing in a different age. Steeped in mediocrity, the local league barely got a mention beyond the country or region. The new generation of officials, though, wanted to bring the game out of its antiquity and Romy Gai, a former sales and marketing chief at the Italian club Juventus, was handed the task of giving UAE football a makeover.

The Italian's arrival had an almost immediate impact. Within a few months of it turning professional, the UAE league scored highly in assessments by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), finishing fifth in the continent, ahead of the likes of Iran, Australia and Qatar. With 349 points from a possible 500, the country earned three places in the 2009 AFC Champions League and a play-off berth. Gai, however, has little time to rest on his laurels. The AFC have raised the bar for participation in the 2011 Champions League, with the minimum average attendance changed from 2,000 to 5,000.

The AFC also want the league to last eight months, with a minimum of 27 matches. The Pro League currently have 22 matches spread across nine months. Gai is confident of meeting the new AFC requirements, saying: "We have 31 registered clubs in the country, so there is a chance in the future to grow. "For sure we need to sit down with the federation, study the pros and cons and see what is the best scenario for the growth of football in the country, for the growth of the national team and the professional clubs.

"But I am confident, together we can redefine the scenario for 2011. We can meet the requirements." Getting the seats filled is also going to be a big problem. Last season, the average attendance at Pro League games was 2,120 and the task of more than doubling that number will be Gai's biggest challenge in the new season, which starts on September 22 with the Super Cup at Dubai Sports City, between Pro League champions Al Ahli and the President's Cup winners Al Ain.

To meet the requirements, Gai is keen to attract the expatriates, who comprise about 80 per cent of the country's population. "The main goal for us this season is to be very open to the expatriate community," he said. "So from our side we will have - I hope from the very start of the season - at least one match a week televised in English. We will also have radio coverage in English. "So we will start to open our arms. The quality of the new players joining us this season is amazing, and that will also help attract new fans."

There has been a change in the Pro League's schedule as well, with every round being played across three days. Last season, the six matches were played over two days. "To play three days instead of two means everybody can benefit," said Gai. "This idea of our chairman [Dr Tariq al Tayer] will definitely help the fans. "Now they will get the chance to go for more matches every week. So I am sure you will see a lot more people inside the stadiums."

arizvi@thenational.ae