x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Tough between the posts

It has become such a regular occurrence that Pro League supporters almost expect their club's goalkeeper to make a mistake in each game.

The Al Ain keeper, Waleed Salem, trains with his team at Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium.
The Al Ain keeper, Waleed Salem, trains with his team at Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium.

It has become such a regular occurrence that Pro League supporters almost expect their club's goalkeeper to make a mistake in each game. The crowd collectively hold their breath every time a cross or free-kick is sent into the penalty box, well aware that the league's keepers are more than capable of turning even the most innocuous high ball into a goal. An obvious source of blame for this butter-fingers epidemic would be the Pro League's Emirati-only rule, ironically designed to improve the quality of the country's keepers. Clubs are allowed to sign three foreigners - and one Asian professional - as long as they are not goalkeepers.

While the rule may have good intentions, the fact that those teams who compete in the Asian Champions League have in the past signed a foreign keeper solely for the duration of the competition, appears to point to its flaws. But the policy does have its supporters. The UAE youth team's goalkeeping coach, Hassan Ismail, thinks the country is producing quality stoppers and their progress would be hindered if foreign keepers were allowed to play in the Pro League.

Ismail was on the coaching staff at the Under 20 World Cup in Egypt, where Yousif Abdelrahman was one of the better keepers in the tournament. He aid. "I feel the keepers in the UAE are a decent standard and easily can be compared with the Asian level. You don't have to have 10 good goalkeepers at one time. It doesn't happen in any country." While praising the potential of the likes of Abdelrahman, Ismail thinks that expectations are too high for goalkeepers in the UAE.

"They are good at Asian level, but the problem is everyone wants to compare them with world class goalkeepers, which is unfair," he said. "You can't blame the system and say there are no decent keepers coming out from the production lines," he said. "It is hard to find youngsters who possesses the physical requirements and the skills that make a good keeper." Al Wahda are one of the club's who have suffered for a long time without a quality keeper, before signing the former UAE No 1 Mutaz Abdulla from Al Ain, and even brought in the Moroccan Nadir Lamyaghri for the Asian Champions League in 2007.

Josef Hickersberger, their Austrian coach, said: "We must understand the football here is improving all the time. "If I was asked if the UAE Under 20 can reach the second round [of the World Cup], I would have laughed had I not been here. They reached the quarter final, that is ample proof of the improvement. "Likewise, better goalkeepers will start rolling in. All they need to have is patience."

Ismail does not think the Emirati-only keeper rule is the source of the problem. "There are only 12 Pro League clubs and if seven or eight teams employ foreign goalies, where will the Emiratis play?" he said. "The signing of foreign players will deprive the Emirati keepers from playing and this won't benefit us. The same has happened with the strikers, we don't have any because they are all foreigners."

The new Pro League season has seen an incredible 59 goals in 12 matches, but Ismail said blaming the goalkeepers for the high scoring games was not justified. "Everyone have started to talk on the number of goals scored and blamed the poor goalkeeping. But they should realise there is a massive disparity with all the club's strengthening the attack with the expensive signings," he said. Mistakes are part of football, but when they come in high profile games, such as the one made by Al Wasl's Majed Naser, the UAE No 1, in the World Cup qualifier in June - when he dived to keep the ball in play, only to deflect it to a South Korean forward to put the ball in to an empty net - only serve to highlight the problem.

Some people would argue that UAE keepers might actually improve, in the long-term, from training alongside top-class foreigners. But Ismail said: "We have foreign staff in the clubs to provide all the training for the young Emirati goalkeepers and the clubs don't have to necessarily sign a foreign goalie for the Emirati to learn from him as an understudy." Fahad Ali, the former UAE captain, added: "We at the FA thought about it and we feel to allow clubs to sign foreign goalkeepers will only make matters worse."

@Email:apassela@thenational.ae