x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sharjah move to Pro League but 'The King' looks the pauper

Almost lost among all that is the news at season's end is that Sharjah, one of the UAE's most-decorated teams, are back in the Pro League after a year's absence in the First Division.

Paulo Bonamigo will once again have to make more out of less when he takes over Sharjah upon their return to the top tier.
Paulo Bonamigo will once again have to make more out of less when he takes over Sharjah upon their return to the top tier.

It has been one of Emirati football's most eventful seasons.

On the back of the UAE's excellent performances at last summer's London Olympics, Mahdi Ali was appointed coach of the senior side and in January guided the team to Gulf Cup glory.

In the Pro League, champions Al Ain, led by the brilliant Omar Abdulrahman, retained their title with four weeks to spare.

Memorably, unfancied Ajman caused one of the upsets of any season by beating Al Jazira in the Etisalat Cup final two weeks ago.

And on Tuesday night, Quique Sanchez Flores's Al Ahli won the President's Cup, beating Al Shabab 4-3 in the one of the most dramatic finals in the competition's history.

Almost lost among all that is the news that Sharjah, one of the UAE's most-decorated teams, are back in the Pro League after a year's absence in the First Division.

When they return to top-flight action next season, they will find a vastly superior Pro League to the one they left behind.

In Paolo Bonamigo, however, they have appointed a proven Pro League manager eager to prove Al Jazira were wrong to discard him in February, although there will be a lot of sympathy for the man he replaced, the outgoing Egyptian coach Ayman Al Ramadi.

Bonamigo no doubt will be expected by the club's board to revive the sleeping giant and ultimately challenge the league's big boys. In reality, it is a thankless task.

In terms of finances and player resources, the club is far from providing the support that coaches at clubs such as Al Ain, Al Ahli and Al Jazira can expect.

It is easy to forget just how much of a force Sharjah were from the mid-1970s and into the 1990s, when they were dominating domestic football the way Al Ain have over the past few seasons. Since then, the story has been one of steady decline, culminating in relegation from the Pro League in 2011/12.

Crucially, before the turn of the century, Sharjah the club - as well as Sharjah the city - were hotbeds of Emirati football talent, providing several notable players for the senior UAE national team.

Muhsin Musabah, widely acknowledged as the finest goalkeeper the country has produced, was part of the golden generation that qualified for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

At the same time, Sharjah's city rivals Al Shaab were the hometown club of the greatest Emirati outfield player of them all, Adnan Al Talyani. Sharjah's promotion to the Pro League may yet renew a healthy local rivalry, but it likely will be a long time before either club has the resources to rival the big clubs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Currently, not one of Sharjah's Emirati players is a regular fixture in the national team.

That their season in the country's second tier has coincided with the UAE's Gulf Cup triumph in Bahrain means the club has missed on the subsequent benefits: the feel-good factor, the momentum and the additional exposure the Pro League received.

Sharjah's current crop of Emirati players and, arguably, even their foreign contingent, would struggle to break into the first 11 of any of their rivals from the southern emirates.

The appointment of Bonamigo may turn out to be a very shrewd one. His extensive experience in this country should be a calming influence on the newly promoted squad. Above all, he is a master of getting the best out of teams with modest resources, as he did at Al Shabab for three years before ultimately guiding them to an Etisalat Cup championship and the AFC Champions League.

You can always count on Bonamigo teams to punch above their weight. There is no reason for Sharjah to be any different.

Whether it is enough to help "The King" rejoin the country's elite sides is another matter.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

 

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