x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Pro League: Ups and downs of a year encompassed in one night at Al Shabab

Al Shabab hosted Al Shaab and proved welcoming hosts, with Al Shaab and their fans leaving safely in the Pro League and Shabab looking forward to their President's Cup final to play Tuesday.

Mutaz Abdullah, left, and Eissa Ahmad, centre, and their Al Shaab teammates played an Al Shabab side that rested most of its regulars but who still put a fight in a 2-1 win that kept Al Shaab from relegation.
Mutaz Abdullah, left, and Eissa Ahmad, centre, and their Al Shaab teammates played an Al Shabab side that rested most of its regulars but who still put a fight in a 2-1 win that kept Al Shaab from relegation.

It used to be transistor radios. These days, it's mobile phones. The several hundred Al Shaab supporters who made the short trip to Dubai for their final Pro League fixture of the season knew that events elsewhere could yet decide their relegation fate should their team lose to Al Shabab.

Though Shaab were favoured to stay up, eyes never wandered far from the small screens for the latest updates from Dibba's game at Ajman.

Relegation, just as their city rivals Sharjah are celebrating promotion, would have been a crushing blow.

In the end they didn't need any favours from Ajman.

Al Shabab proved to be more than a welcoming host. Even by Pro League standards, the number of Al Shabab fans who bothered attending was pitifully small. Having been knocked out of the Asian Champions League last week, and with the President's Cup final to look forward to on Tuesday, the players barely showed up either.

Al Shaab's 2-1 win was mostly comfortable, if punctuated by a few nervy moments.

"It's all going our way," one fan said seconds before news came through that Dibba Al Fujairah had overturned a two-goal deficit just before half time. Groans all around.

Still, with a one-goal lead at half time, and knowing even a draw would do, the atmosphere remained very relaxed. Some fans chatted to the substitutes behind the goal where they sat.

At the start of the second half, they even found time to playfully serenade a former player and current Al Shabab defender, Essa Mohammed.

But the semi-celebratory mood could only partially mask the club's troubles this season, and long-time fans knew it.

"Our club needs an overhaul, the team needs maintenance," an elderly fan by the name of Nasser said. "We should be better than this."

Indeed, Al Shaab, while never one of the country's more successful teams, have been an established top-tier club for decades and, especially in the 1990s, have seen better days.

The President's Cup was won in 1993 and the Super Cup in 1994. A year later they finished runners-up in the Asian Cup Winners' Cup after losing 2-1 to Japan's Yokohama Flugels.

Al Shaab are affectionately remembered for being the only club of the UAE's greatest-ever player, Sharjah-born Adnan Al Talyani.

Those days are long gone. And with their considerably more successful local rivals Sharjah playing in the second tier this season, the city was seemingly being left behind by the better supported, and funded, clubs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

"We have a small stadium, maybe 6,000 fans," Nasser said of the club's Khalid bin Mohammed Stadium. "Look at Al Jazira's stadium, or Al Ahli."

Some of the younger fans present would not even remember the days when Sharjah's two clubs had a rivalry worthy of the name.

With Dibba holding Ajman to a 2-2 draw their mood briefly turned nervous when Shabab equalised before the darling of the fans, Michael N'dri, restored Shaab's lead.

He celebrated wildly with the supporters behind the goal.

Shaab were safe.

Dibba's exciting 3-3 draw with Ajman did not matter

"Who do you love?" Shaab's cheerleader shouted over his megaphone.

"Shaabawi," sang the faithful in response.

They headed back home more in relief than anything else.

Bigger challenges await next season. But at least they can now look forward to another season in the Pro League.

Who knows, with more investment, or "team maintenance", they may even look forward to a return to the halcyon days of the early 1990s.

Not to mention the little matter of resumption of that local rivalry with their neighbours from across town.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

 

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