x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

'We will do better' pledge as Pro League kicks off

Football club leaders have embraced the need for change and vow to present a more polished product from the season opener tonight.

Fabio Cannavaro on training with Al Ahli team at Rashid Stadium in Dubai.
Fabio Cannavaro on training with Al Ahli team at Rashid Stadium in Dubai.

For its first two seasons the UAE Pro League was more an exercise in semantics than in high-calibre football professionalism. True, all the players were paid, some lavishly, but much about the league seemed semi-professional: half-hearted efforts, disastrous results against regional opponents, and anaemic crowds allowed to enter stadiums without paying even a token price of admission.

But the league's leaders have embraced the need for change and vow that fans will witness a more polished product as the 2010-11 season kicks off tonight. The focal point for "new and improved" is Al Ahli, the Dubai club who play at Al Dhafra tonight with Fabio Cannavaro, the Italian international, on the pitch and David O'Leary, an Irishman who has coached English Premier League sides on the sidelines. "Football fans in the UAE are very knowledgeable and very discerning," said Carlo Nohra, the league's chief executive. "Because they get access to foreign football, they know what quality is. "We can dress it up however we want, but ultimately it is going to be the product which attracts the fans to the stadiums. We need to ensure national players are playing to a higher standard. The introduction of players like Fabio Cannavaro and coaches like David O'Leary will help drag that out of the players." Al Ahli experienced the perfect storm of failed expectations last season. They were embarrassed on a global scale when they were put out of the Club World Cup by a semi-professional New Zealand side. They were left red-faced regionally when they finished last in their Asian Champions League group. They were the target of derision domestically when they hired and fired four coaches and finished in the middle of the Pro League standings after being champions a year before. It was enough to galvanise the club into action that included the acquisition of Cannavaro, the 2006 Fifa Player of the Year, whose two-year contract reportedly could bring him as much as Dh22.5 million (US$6.1m) per season. He will anchor the defence, while Ahmed Faisal, perhaps the best young Emirati talent, leads the attack. Professionalism, which began in earnest in September 2008, has not come easy to UAE football, as two seasons of low attendance and questionable standards on the field demonstrated. Abel Braga, the Brazilian coach of the Abu Dhabi side Al Jazira, earlier this year bemoaned small crowds and, particularly, Emirati players' attitudes. "The players are not fully committed," he said. "They have been given professional contracts, yet they don't behave like the true professionals. They are not willing to work hard because they don't have the hunger. They have the money and enjoy good lifestyles, and they don't want to improve." The answer, however, is not hiring players with foreign passports; teams are limited to three such players. It is important, then, that clubs choose foreign players wisely. "They have to have an attitude, hunger and professionalism that rubs off on the younger players," said Phil Anderton, the chief executive of Al Jazira. "There is no point picking up quality names if all they are going to do is form cliques and end up with other players resenting the fact they are here for a year to get their enormous pay packet." The official average attendance for Pro League matches last season was approximately 2,600. That represents an improvement of 20 per cent on the previous campaign, but is still far from creating a self-sufficient environment. The league wants its clubs to charge admission to matches, even a nominal fee like Dh10, if only to foster the notion of "value" in connection to the matches. However, the recommendation does not become a rule until next season. Other clubs have taken steps to raise standards, including: ? Al Jazira set up an exchange programme with Manchester City, the Abu Dhabi-owned Premier League club. Four of Al Jazira's best juniors will train at City's academy for three years each, an invaluable experience. Local players are also expected to benefit from working with managers and coaches who have experience in the Premier League ? Al Jazira jettisoned two disappointing and expensive Brazilian players and replaced them with Jader "Bare" Volnei Spindler, the Brazilian forward poached from Al Ahli, and Matias Emilio Delgado, the decorated Argentine playmaker. ? Al Wahda of Abu Dhabi will bid to repeat their title success of last season with a new coach, the Romanian Laszlo Boloni. The club kept its core, led by Fernando Baiano, the Brazilian forward, and will be in position to instantly rehabilitate the league's international image when they play in the 2010 Club World Cup in December. ? Al Ain, last season's leading scorers, bucked the trend of employing foreign coaches. The club will be run by Abdulhameed al Mishtiki, the only Emirati coach in the league. ? Al Wasl of Dubai will attempt to recapture the success of 2007/08. Mohammed Omar, the veteran striker who lifted the Gulf Cup as UAE captain in 2007, has moved back to the club where he started his career 18 years ago. He will retire at the end of the season. The Pro League also may benefit from what is being called the "golden generation" of young Emirati players dotted around the league. The UAE won the Under 23 Gulf Cup in Qatar last month and reached the quarter-finals of the U20 World Cup last season. Working with coaches of the calibre of O'Leary can only benefit the likes of Ahmed Khalil, 19, who was voted Asia's Young Player of 2008. And if he ever gets the better of Cannavaro in training, how much of a confidence boost will that provide? Perhaps the same sort the league hopes to enjoy this season. @Email:pradley@thenational.ae