x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Time to make Pro League play-offs an all-Emirati affair

Plans to expand the Pro League to 14 teams bring with them their own issues for the clubs involved, writes Paul Oberjuerge.

Sharjah Club's Marcelo in action during the Etisalat Cup.
Sharjah Club's Marcelo in action during the Etisalat Cup.

Expanding the Pro League to 14 teams was always going to be tricky. The Football Association have done well to resolve one aspect of the dilemma, pertaining to fairness, but answers to the particulars of "how, where, when" remain elusive.

It was widely assumed the FA would take the top flight from 12 to 14 by retaining the "relegated" clubs Sharjah and Emirates and adding the two promoted sides, Kalba and Dibba Al Fujairah. Bingo: 14.

That was not an appetising prospect, however. Sharjah have not won a match in any competition against a Pro League side since December, and Emirates lost 15 of 22 league matches. To keep them in the top flight seemed an unfair reward for lucky timing.

The FA solution opens the final two slots in the league to competition on the field, which is a fine idea, and not dissimilar from methods employed by some of the world's elite leagues.

Emirates and Sharjah will meet the third and fourth teams from the lower division, Al Shaab and Al Dhafra, in one-offs to decide the 13th and 14th teams into the league.

This makes each team win their way in, and the two high-stakes games could generate significant interest among fans of the four clubs.

Granted, a mid-table finish in the eight-team Division One is not a ringing endorsement of the competence of Shaab and Dhafra, but the play-off allows us to see if two former top-flight teams are good enough to supplant two of the 2011/12 clubs.

If, as seems logical, the 11th team in the Pro League plays the fourth team in the lower division, and the 12th plays the third, a felicitous by-product would be the most significant renewal of the Sharjah-Shaab derby in many years.

(This play-off scenario could be carried into subsequent years. For example, at the end of the season the 12th team in the Pro League could have a one-off with the third team from the Division One, with a place in the top flight at stake.)

Granted, the level of professionalism in several of the nation's yo-yo clubs is not lofty. The Asian Football Confederation guidelines the league is attempting to follow - such as the demand for 33 league games - also include provisions for stadium amenities and business transparency that is not universal in the league.

The immediate trouble is when these play-off games should be played.

The best solution would be: immediately after the league season concludes. That train has left the station, however; teams presumably scattered when campaigns ended last month.

Players could be recalled now, and games played as soon as possible. But then we get into sticky situations in which players are out of contract, and some expatriates are on the other side of the world. (Sharjah's Brazilians Edinho and Marcelo Oliveira, who scored 20 of 26 league goals, come to mind.)

The option is to stage the play-offs just before the coming season. That brings a new set of problems. August tends to be even hotter than June, and by then clubs will have had to decide if they are investing in expensive players.

The losers of the play-offs, then, might find themselves in Division One but obliged to spend significant money on foreigners they no longer want.

One solution might be to have the play-offs be Emirati-only affairs. That would eliminate recalling foreigners, or signing them before knowing if they will play in the top flight. Also, none of the four clubs in question have a player in the Olympic team, and the idea of "our Emiratis against yours" is compelling.

Yousuf Al Serkal, the new FA president, has charged the competitions committee with figuring out how this should be sorted out. They have their work cut out for them.



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