x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Growing pains of expanded Pro League will be worth it long-term

More teams, more games and more opportunities, but there will be some teething problems, writes Ahmed Rizvi.

Dibba Al Fujairah will be playing in the top division of the UAE for the first time in 36 years.
Dibba Al Fujairah will be playing in the top division of the UAE for the first time in 36 years.

Back in 2008, when the Asian Football Confederation laid out its blueprint for the professionalisation of football in the continent, its then chief Mohammed bin Hammam spoke about the necessity for change.

"Asian football needs a big reformation process to make it professional and successful, and I know radical changes might not please everybody, but we must have the courage of conviction," he said. "My goal is to see Asia and its teams take their rightful place in the pantheon of world football."

Sharing that same dream, the UAE Football Association - headed by Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithi at the time - embraced professionalism and from the 2008/09 season, the top division was rebranded as the Pro League and an independent entity was created to manage it.

As Bin Hammam had warned, the FA's decision did not receive universal approval back then and it was the same when Yousuf Al Serkal, the current chief of UAE football, announced his plans to expand the Pro League to 14 teams.

Al Serkal was contesting for the presidency of the FA at the time and many cynics dismissed his plans as an election gimmick to win votes. That, however, was not true since the Pro League had been discussing this expansion since the end of the 2010/11 season.

Most of the clubs supported Al Serkal's plans, though, and it showed in his landslide 24-2 win, and the new president delivered on his promise almost immediately.

"More teams and more games will provide more playing opportunities, particularly to the young players," Al Serkal said after announcing the decision.

"There are a lot of age-group players who don't get an early exposure in the country's top league.

"There was a need to play more games and to provide the players a longer season, and by increasing the number of teams to 14 we have achieved that objective to benefit the country's football." And increasing the number of teams in the top division could also help the UAE in keeping its place among the top leagues on the AFC's list of countries meeting their criteria for participation in the Asian Champions League. The AFC now say that domestic leagues must play a minimum of 26 rounds to maintain their places in the competition.

The Pro League has generally scored well in most of the requirements, including organisation and infrastructure, but the lack of fans at the stadiums has been a constant problem. That did not cost the UAE in the past and the Pro League managed keep three direct berths to the Champions League and one through the play-offs.

The AFC, however, have made a few amendments to their Champions League criteria. They have now introduced penalty points, which means the UAE will be deducted points for poor attendances or any other criteria they fail to meet.

So the expansion could create some problems as well. The stadiums of the promoted clubs Dibba Al Fujairah and Al Shaab do not meet the minimum requirements of the AFC. Dibba's home ground has fewer seats than the stands at Al Wasl's training pitch, while Shaab's stadium has been in a state of neglect following their relegation to the lower division in 2008/09.

The two teams will be playing their home matches at other venues - Dibba at the Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain and Shaab at the Sharjah Stadium. Some clubs have also voiced their concerns about the financial burden of increased number of matches and its demand on the players.

"It is better to have a quality league with fewer teams instead of going for quantity," Khaled Awadh, the deputy chief executive officer of Al Wahda, told The National in June.

"Maybe we can consider the increase in the future when the all the clubs reach the same levels."

Awad Al Darmaki, a member of the Al Ain board, told this newspaper in May that he favoured an eight-club league with teams playing each other three times.

Others have, however, voiced their support for the move, claiming more matches would mean a greater emphasis on fitness and more chances for the players on the bench.

"As we have seen with Baniyas [last season], playing more regularly increases the technical levels of the players and provides greater opportunity for them as you need to rotate your squad," said Saif Obaid Al Khaili, the vice-chairman of Baniyas.

"The increase might also reflect positively on attendance at matches as the fans of smaller clubs will get the opportunity to watch the big stars, the top professional players and coaches."

Quique Sanchez Flores, the Spanish manager of Al Ahli, has also welcomed the increase and said: "I think it is better because the teams coming to the Pro League [from Division One] are good teams. It is good for us to play these four games more."

arizvi@thenational.ae

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