x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Jazira and Ahli leaving others in their wake

The inaugural Pro League season may have culminated in a thrilling title race between the champions Al Ahli and Al Jazira.

Saleh Obaid, white shirt, has called for improvement in the standard of the Pro League.
Saleh Obaid, white shirt, has called for improvement in the standard of the Pro League.

ABU DHABI // The inaugural Pro League season may have culminated in a thrilling title race between the champions Al Ahli and Al Jazira that would have been the envy of many leagues across the world, but the competition still needs to embrace a professional mentality from boardroom to bootroom. That is the view of Saled Obaid, the Jazira captain, who has been encouraged by the improving standards in the league but believes more work needs to be done if the changing face of football in the UAE is to complete its make-over.

"This was the first year we were professional," he said. "I think we have a long way to go until we are properly professional, maybe six or seven years. We need to change the mentality." As club captain, Obaid prides himself on setting an example to the younger players through his professionalism both on and off the field, a trait he feels may take time to spread throughout the league. "Professional players at clubs like Manchester United or Chelsea, they teach them how to be professional from a young age. Here most of the players didn't start at clubs until 17 or 18, so when they play for a club, life is very different," says Obaid.

"They want to go out and party and sleep in. They come and train for a few hours and they'll go out and do whatever they want. It's a problem at all clubs in the UAE." The standard of referees is another big issue for Obaid. "The referees make a lot of mistakes. Not just against us, against everybody," says Obaid. "They are not professional; they have to go to work. You can't make the players professional and the referees not. Professional, that means the players, the clubs, the manager, everybody.

"When we play with the national team outside [the UAE] against Japan, against China, when you give away a free kick, even if it's a red card, the way [the referee] says it to you, you accept it. He speaks in a professional way," says Obaid, who feels referees need to show more restrain and respect on the pitch to command the same in return. "[Here], the way they talk to us on the field - we're not young players - they treat us like we are their kids. They shout at us too much. They have to be polite, then we can accept it and it's no problem for us."

While clubs like Jazira and Ahli have embraced the professional era, other teams have struggled to keep up, splitting the league in two, says Obaid. "It [the money] is really dividing, you can see it in the league, Jazira, Ahli they have good money, but other clubs do not and they are struggling. "They don't bring good players from outside. Many Sharjah clubs, Dubai clubs, they aren't doing so well."

This is a factor Obaid believes may have helped Ahli ensure Jazira remained second in the domestic league for consecutive seasons. "Other teams in the league have not been in good shape this season. Al Wahda, Al Ain, they have not been good this year," he said. "I think this year our team did a lot of good things. "We lost only twice this year, both to Ahli, which is not good. I think this changed everything. After that you have to win all your games and Ahli needed to lose one or two games.

"This is difficult as they are a very strong team and the league was not in good shape this year, some teams were not in good shape so it was easy for Ahli to win." With second place not enough to qualify for the Club World Cup - which is being hosted in Abu Dhabi later this year - Obaid believes the prospect of Ahli playing in their stadium will spur Jazira to go one better next season. "I won't watch Ahli play because I will feel disappointed. It's our field, our stadium, but we have to accept it," says Obaid.

"We have a good team who deserve to play in this competition, but we have to accept it, there was only one point difference from being champions. "We have to work a little bit more next year. No clubs in the UAE are more hungry than us. We have to be there next year for us and our fans." zgriffiths@thenational.ae