x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Group B side Masafi fear nobody

Masafi Sports Club are at the opposite extreme to the big names of the UAE Pro League - and their football enthusiasm makes up for what they lack in resources. As Sharjah of the Pro League can testify, they were beaten by Masafi in the President's Cup.

Al Ain (in white) and Masafi players race for the ball in the President’s Cup on Wednesday.
Al Ain (in white) and Masafi players race for the ball in the President’s Cup on Wednesday.

The coach works full-time for the Sharjah police. Most of his players have real jobs, too. They drive themselves to matches and arrange their own pre-game meals. Sometimes they train only once a week, which perhaps is understandable when only nine or 10 players attend a session.

Such was the state of the Masafi Sports Club as they arrived at Al Maktoum Stadium to play the nine-time Pro League champions Al Ain on Wednesday night.

Nothing but the President's Cup, the UAE Football Association's answer to the English FA Cup, could get these two sides of vastly divergent pedigrees on the same pitch.

Masafi play in Group B of the First Division, the third and lowest level of FA competition, a step below Group A of the First Division and a world away from the 12-team Pro League.

What made the match between Masafi with Al Ain notable was to see if the club from the Ras al Khaimah mountain town of the same name, best known for its bottled water, could reprise their role as giant-killers. In September, Masafi shocked Sharjah of the Pro League by winning a penalty shoot-out 4-3 after a 1-1 draw.

"We were so excited," said Khalifa al Mazrooie, 20, a Masafi resident and Sharjah University student who was in the stand for the Al Ain match. "We were all passing the news on our Blackberries. 'We beat Sharjah!' It was a great victory."

It also was perhaps the most improbable result in the President's Cup in recent years. When Pro League clubs fall, it almost always has been to Group A clubs who have been (or soon will be) playing in the top flight.

Only one lower-division club has won the President's Cup in the past 20 years: Baniyas, in 1991.

Saif Sultan Ali, 42, remembers that surprise triumph; he was playing in the domestic top flight back then. The man who now coaches Masafi led Al Ain in scoring with 22 goals in 1993/94.

He does not expect, however, to see that sort of shock again. Since the Pro League became thoroughly professional for the 2008/09 season, the gap between the top flight and the bottom has turned into a chasm, he said.

"Our players are paid, but for most of them it is short money," he said. "With the Pro League spending so much money, we cannot keep up."

Masafi certainly could not keep up with Al Ain on Wednesday; two of Ali's first XI went out with injuries in the first half-hour, and Al Ain cantered to a 3-0 victory.

One of the injured players was Kaabi, a midfielder from Cameroon. With him went Masafi's slim hopes of another surprise victory. Even with their other foreigner, the Moroccan Mohammed Amine, playing in the striker position, Masafi never put a shot on goal.

Ali attributed his side's toothless performance to a lack of matches (First Division sides play only 14 league games in a season) and to a slide in quality since the Sharjah match, almost five months ago.

"Everyone was training then, and we were very organised," he said. "Against Sharjah, we were playing football but [against Al Ain] we were only chasing the ball.

"We have some players who are very good, but because they have to work outside the club they cannot always train."

Some of his players live in Masafi, others in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which is a three-hour drive from Ras al Khaimah.

Al Mazrooie, the student, said he knows some of the players and sees them around the small town. One of his acquaintances is the midfielder Jamal al Mansoori, who he said is in the Army and has to ask for leave to play in matches or to train.

Masafi SC were established in 1982 and never have played in the top flight. Their players' shirts not only lack their names, they do not carry even one square millimetre of sponsorship. Their home ground in Masafi seats a few hundred people, al Mazrooie said, and average attendance for a home match is about 100.

Masafi are not unique; most First Division clubs face the same financial limitations and the same slim chance of reaching the Pro League or even winning a match against one of its sides. When asked if Fabio Cannavaro made 10 times as much money as his entire squad, Ali only smiled.

Two lower-division clubs have reached the quarter-finals of the current President's Cup, but Ali does not expect one of them to win this year - or any time soon.

"It cannot happen the way things are now," he said.