The champions Al Shabab face toughest competition yet from talent-packed squads.
Pro League ready for a new dawn
ABU DHABI // The rising of a new league season, which begins two hours before midnight tonight and will push on through its opening-day fixtures tomorrow, traditionally brings fresh hope, an undulating level of expectation and a posse of clubs hectically jostling to establish credibility.
It has always been thus in whichever country you visit in the world, but this summer has brought a twist to the UAE's league. The country's first professional league, or the Pro League, appears to bring with it burgeoning reputations. A great new adventure, but also an experiment if soundbites by league officials about making the league the best in Asia are to be regarded as better than bluster. Money has not been in short supply, more a flood than a trickle even in this part of the world. All sorts of personalities have been touching down to oversee the project. The Italian Romy Gai is the chief executive, but his remit must be to try to sell the league beyond its parochial feel.
Heavy investment by the league's participants has spawned a plethora of notable South Americans. They have come to the Middle East hoping to increase their stock for prospective future roles in loftier environs, while topping up their wealth. They also threaten to provide some splendid moments. It would be foolhardy to project the UAE as some sort of market leader in football, but if strikers such as Al Jazira's Brazilian player Rafael Sobis and Al Ain's Chilean midfielder Jorge Valdiva can justify their value, then it could be a jolly season for all subscribers. Twelve teams will go at it this year, and the winners of a title, won in its previous incarnation by Al Shabab on a frenetic final day last season in May, will participate in the Club World Cup to be staged in Abu Dhabi next year.
Shabab have taken on the former Inter Milan striker Mohammed Kallon. Al Ain, managed by the venerable German coach Winfried Schaefer, and Al Jazira have been at the forefront of the spending shenanigans with a wedge of ?27million (Dh143m) unloosened to entice Sobis from Real Betis and Valdiva from Palmeiras. Jazira's budget appeared to be prompted by the appointment of Abel Braga, the former coach of Brazil's Internacional. He did not come cheaply, his contract is estimated to be worth Dh36m over four years but the aim is to exploit such expertise to improve the standard and the product. At some grounds last term the fans appeared to be half asleep.
Al Ain boast nine league titles and an Asian Champions League, but went without any trophies last year while at Al Wahda, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Their most prominent player remains the UAE striker Ismail Matar, who seems destined never to move to Europe, despite longing to test his assets in a tougher league. At least, he has some worthwhile company. The most succulent match of the weekend is the Abu Dhabi derby match late tomorrow night. It all has the same feel to it as last year, but whether it will be any different remains a moot point. email@example.com