Foreigners lead in the attack for the nation's top-level sides, but some expect Emiratis to make a comeback
Scoring remains an import duty for clubs
Nine times out of 10, Adnan al Talyani would have hit the back of the net. But to the amazement of a crowd of 50,000-plus people, he missed the target with a simple header from a cross from the right flank, and the game ended scoreless after 120 minutes.
The UAE lost 4-2 in the ensuing penalty shoot-out to Saudi Arabia in the 1996 Asian Cup final at Zayed Sports City, the closest they have come to winning the continental title.
The crowd were understandably disappointed, but al Talyani still remains a hero and one of the greatest Emirati forwards. Since his retirement in 1999, he has been named as the nation's Player of the Century.
Al Talyani, who is at the Asian Games as the team manager of the UAE Olympic team in China, won 164 international caps for his country and appeared at the World Cup in 1990 in Italy. He spent his entire playing career with Al Shaab, almost two decades, because of the strict transfer restrictions at that time.
The UAE have produced impressive scoring talents like Ismail Matar, the hero of the 2007 Gulf Cup-winning team, and now Ahmed Khalil, the country's best forward prospect. But they have not been able to produce another al Talyani.
The domestic game has changed dramatically since turning fully professional in 2008/09.
The 12 Pro League clubs have become heavily dependant on foreign players to provide goals. That the imported players are enjoying so much success at putting balls into nets is a tribute to the talent scouts at the clubs.
So far this season, the foreigners account for 112 league goals to 50 by Emiratis. The ratio is 27 to 14 in the Etisalat Cup.
Certainly, the UAE is not home to the only league in which players with foreign passports dominate the scoring charts. In England's Premier League, 11 of the top 14 in the scoring list are foreigners. In the US-based Major League Soccer, eight of the top 12 scorers this season were born outside the US.
"The clubs want to win and they have players who can score goals at the top of their priority lists," said Munther Abdulla, a television analyst. "It has hindered the progress of the Emirati forwards, particularly, as their objective is to win. It is quite natural the clubs want to concentrate on those players who can score goals. This is the pattern all over the world, and that's why the forwards are the highest-paid in the business."
The foreign signings are restricted to three per club, but nearly all of the players brought in are forwards or attack-oriented midfielders. Fabio Cannavaro at Al Ahli is an exception, one of only four foreigners among the 36 in the league who play on the back line.
Fahad Ali, a former captain of the national team, and a defender, said that he believed clubs may be making a mistake by not hiring top foreigners to play in defence, as Ahli did with Cannavaro, the former World Player of the Year and captain of Italy's 2006 World Cup winning squad.
"Most club coaches - or, rather, the club management - have spent enormous sums of money to sign up foreign forwards rather than investing some in building a sound defence," he said.
Andre Senghor, 24, has made the biggest impact among the foreign-born scorers, with 14 goals in all competitions this season.
Behind him on the Pro League scoring chart are Ibrahim Diaky, Al Jazira's Ivorian-born midfielder and naturalised Emirati, and Francisco Yeste, a Spaniard with Al Wasl. Ahmed Khamis, the Al Ahli right wing, tops the Emirati list of scorers in the league with four, one goal ahead of Ahmed Jumaa, the Jazira midfielder, who is not a regular in the first team.
Josef Hickersberger, the Al Wahda coach, believes Emiratis will take on a scoring role in coming years.
"The UAE game will improve with time and the Emirati players will certainly learn from their foreign colleagues to make the grade," said the Austrian, who led the Abu Dhabi club to the Pro League title last season to book a spot in the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi.
"I see a lot of good things happening to the UAE game, and the foreign players won't be a hindrance to the locals to grow in their stature. I see that in the younger crop of players, if we take Baniyas for example.
"It is true Senghor, a foreigner, is their top scorer, but he wouldn't have scored half of it had it not been for the contributions of the local players around him.
"The Emirati players will eventually catch up with their foreign counterparts, but this won't happen overnight. But I am sure it will happen over a course of time, I imagine 10 years down the line."