x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pro League champions Al Ain 'could be the biggest club in Asia'

In a revealing interview Awad Al Darmaki, the Al Ain director, tells Paul Oberjuerge the future plans for the UAE football club.

Al Ain FC celebrates a score at a recent Pro League football game in Al Ain. Anas Kanni / Al Ittihad
Al Ain FC celebrates a score at a recent Pro League football game in Al Ain. Anas Kanni / Al Ittihad

On March 26, 2011, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces – and also the president of Al Ain FC – installed a new board of directors at the club, chaired by Abdullah bin Mohammed.

Their first mission was saving Al Ain from the real, if nearly unimaginable, threat of relegation. After 14 rounds, the UAE's most successful club were a shocking 11th in the table, in the drop zone, and had not won a league game in six months.

Two days later, Awad Al Darmaki, a member of the new board, attended training to exhort the players and coaches to greater efforts.

"Al Ain is not merely a football team, but it is a famous national symbol, and every one should remember this well," he told them, according to the club's website. "Al Ain are still a distinctive team that not only can survive, but also can compete."

What sort of impression the new board, or Al Darmaki's remarks, made on the players and staff is not clear, but the facts are these: Al Ain took 14 points from their next seven matches, climbing to safety, and a year later, they are UAE Pro League champions of the top flight for a record 10th time.

In a wide-ranging conversation with The National, Al Darmaki reflected on the rescue effort, followed by the championship, and Al Ain's next goal: to win the Asian Champions League again.

"Last year, we weren't that bad," he said. "We dominated many games in the middle of the pitch, but we were weak in defence and we had nobody to score. Also our coach [Adbulhameed Al Mishtiki] was not up that level."

He said the club's foreign players, including the Brazilian midfielder Elias and the Romanian striker Valentin Badea, were unable to provide a cutting edge for a side with several promising young players.

The club's fans, generally considered the best in the country, were deserting the club, and the board thought it important to re-engage them.

"It was crucial," Al Darmaki said. "Some games, the stadium was empty. It was pathetic. It was like the fans were saying, 'This is the Titanic and we have to get away.'"

The first game under the new leadership, a 2-0 victory over rivals Al Wahda, was the turning point, he said. "To beat Wahda, that gave the players the motivation they needed."

Even before the season ended, the new management were planning for 2011/12. Key to their plans: hiring Cosmin Olaroiu, previously of Al Hilal and Al Sadd, as coach. "He's a winner," Al Darmaki said. "He doesn't talk tough, but he wants to see everything in balance."

The Romanian was revealed as coach in early June. The club also went to two camps during the summer to allow Olariou to instil his methods, and management signed four foreigners who were able to make an impact, including Asamoah Gyan, the league's leading scorer this term, with 20 goals, and Mirel Radoi, the midfielder who, with the Emirati veteran Helal Saeed, purchased from Al Jazira, put steel into the defence.

The side won the Pro League title with ease, clinching with three weeks left in the season.

"Remarkable, that a team that was almost relegated last year has won the title," Al Darmaki said. "We didn't come with a magical stick to change sand into gold."

Such is the mindset at Al Ain, that they already are thinking of future conquests even before this one is commemorated at the final match, at home, on Friday (May 25).

"We need to strength our squad," said Al Darmaki, a consultant to the Crown Prince's court and a graduate of the University of San Diego's masters programme in executive leadership.

"The current squad is enough to win a local competition, but when it comes to Asia, we need to sign at least two or three players: a left winger, someone to play with Radoi and another striker."

No one should doubt Al Ain's ambitions, he said.

"You can't say you will win everything," he said. "You can't. You need to establish your primary goal and pursue it.

"Next season, do we target Asia or the local league? For us, for sure, it's Asia. Our supporters would love to see us on the top step in the continent; they know we have done it before," he said, referring to the 2003 Asian Champions League victory.

"If we win Asia, then we are in the Club World Cup, and we could be the biggest club in Asia."

He suggested that Al Ain have the financial wherewithal that other UAE sides do not, and he said spending has spiralled out of control at some clubs.

"Clubs now are spending money like they are at an auction," he said. "They hear, 'OK, someone else might top us for this player' and they pay double what they should.

"I think several clubs are going to have financial difficulties very soon. We have to work harder to keep costs under control."

He expects the coming league season to be a challenge for the champions.

"Everyone wants a piece of the champion," he said. "Al Ain will be the same."

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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