Footballing foreign legion
The new UAE football season is almost upon us and the clubs have returned from their European summer camps raring to go. But as David Williams found out, the 1999-2000 campaign could prove to be a turning point for the local game
Just nine years ago, the national football team from the United Arab Emirates was at the pinnacle of its brief history, having qualified for the World Cup Finals in Italy. Regarded as one of the top three sides from the Asian Football Association, the Arab sensations were rightfully flexing their football muscle with the best that the game had to offer in the greatest sporting showcase in the world.
It was a sweet success story for the UAE, which was the only nation in Italy to boast a national football league made up entirely of local players, following the expulsion of all foreign footballers from its shores in 1984.
Officials lapped up the attention, the UAE was introduced to the world stage, and the country was rated as one of the first possible superpowers to emerge away from the soccer hotbeds of Europe and South America. But the UAE was soon brought down to earth, three brave performances only produced three defeats, with one goal scored in the 4-1 reverse against the mighty Germany by Al Nasr's Khalid Ismail, who is still involved with the club today as a junior coach.
However, the UAE struggled to build on the dizzy heights of 1990, and a steady slump in the domestic league's quality, coupled with the failure of qualifying for the last World Cup in France - despite high expectations - saw the UAE Football Association lose patience and allow the return of foreign players last season, limiting their participation to just two per club.
The cheque books came out along with the promise of big names to the talent-starved fans who have dwindled down to almost nothing at many league stadiums in the past couple of seasons. But 15 years is a long time in the world of professional football and it did not take long for the UAE clubs to find out. Players' salaries and transfer fees have spiralled out of control during the 1990's, ruling out the hope of seeing accomplished players grace the local football stadiums.
Not to be deterred, the first division clubs signed 29 players of varying nationalities, including former African footballer-of-the-year Abedi Pele, who decided to play out his twilight years at Al Ain for a contract reportedly worth $500,000 a season. Pele is a highly decorated player, with his most notable achievement coming during his days with French club Marseille, who won the European Cup.
But critics were not convinced by the return of the foreign legion, with many die hard nationals protesting that their reintroduction would reduce the first team opportunities for young local players. Those critics can take comfort in the figures released at the close of last season. Of the 29 players signed, 26 were either strikers or midfielders but their goals in the 1998-99 season accounted for less than 40 per cent of the league's total. Many foreigners struggled to establish regular first team places with Al Ahli providing the best example. Local player Yousuf Ali banged home 27 goals last season, forcing the side's coach to relegate Nigerian import Antony to the sidelines for most of the term. At eight first division clubs, the local players outscored the foreigners.
The situation last season, and failure to win back a majority of the stay-away fans, resulted in the UAE Football Association and many of its clubs doing some serious soul-searching this summer to ensure we don't see more of the same this coming season. One local journalist who has been covering the UAE leagues for the past five years was in no doubt where most of the problem lies, but chose not to reveal his identity by saying the Football Association reacts harshly to criticism.
"If I'm not mistaken, every first division club, bar one, sacked its coach at least once last season," he said. "Can you imagine that happening in any league in Europe or South America? Coaches need to be given at least two full seasons because it takes that long for players to get used to his tactics and for the results to show.
"Look at Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. It took him four years to win his first trophy with them and now he has become one of the most successful managers in the history of the game. Some coaches here were getting the boot if their club lost two consecutive games; it is not the way to establish a good successful team.
"I believe the standard of football amongst the local players is generally very good and the introduction of quality overseas players is a step in the right direction, but those players have to be better than what is already at the club. I think it will take another season or two to get it right but it will get there eventually, I'm sure of that." The relaxation of the foreigner rule revolutionised English football seven years ago when the limit on overseas players was lifted, and the UAE Football Association will be hoping for a similar spark to ignite their league over the coming seasons.
One man who knows all about the magic weaved by Ferguson at Manchester United is Arthur Albiston, who played 464 matches for the Old Trafford club and spent the latter days of his United career playing under Ferguson in the mid 1980s.
He visited the UAE on a private trip last month, but is looking at the possibility of returning later in the year to conduct coaching clinics amongst the local youngsters. Still involved with United at Under 15 level, Albiston is the sort of coach any UAE club would love to get their hands on and he took time out to speak to Al Shindagah to offer some sound advice to local clubs here.
"They would be wise to take it steady for a season or two and choose foreign players who are based quite close to the UAE," said the 42-year-old. "It is difficult for players to acclimatise to new areas and a new way of life, and I am sure there is plenty of talent closer to home rather than look further afield to Europe and Africa. After a couple of seasons, and if the standard starts improving, then would be the best time to start chasing European stars."
Albiston agreed with local clubs' current trend of hiring European coaches, rather than opting for Brazilians, which has been a long-standing tradition in the UAE. "Only Brazilians can play the way their coaches like the game to be played," he said. "Most countries lack the flair of Brazilian players.
European coaches generally like a more organised approach to the game which would probably suit the clubs here more I should think." Albiston currently runs his own event company in Manchester, organising corporate days out to, among other places, Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United.
So what foreign players are looking to play in the UAE? Chris Okechukwu, a Nigerian soccer agent, recently travelled to the UAE with two of the country's most promising stars. "Countries like the UAE are ideal for players from Nigeria taking their first steps in the world of professional football. The climate is similar to what the boys are used to at home and each club generally employs a top level coach that can teach these players a lot. "However, once they reach their late teens, early twenties, they should be playing in one of the top European leagues if they are of any great standard. No disrespect to UAE football, but the league will struggle to attract top players at the peak of their careers simply because it does not have a high profile in world football. It is perfect for young players looking for a career start, and older players hoping to earn some money before they retire, but it is not too good a place for quality players with ambition." The UAE football clubs have also been the targets of illegal agents trying to bring foreign players into the country through the back door, particularly from central Africa. Many of the players on offer for "reduced" prices are nowhere near the quality that their CV's claim, and clubs have to be on their guard.
But if some clubs have made the mistake of signing duff players in the UAE, they are in distinguished company. There is a classic tale from the UK of former Liverpool and Glasgow Rangers manager Graeme Sounness signing a young Liberian player for Southampton on a healthy three-month contract following a recommendation from former world footballer-of-the-year George Weah, who also hails from Liberia.
Sounness was so keen to introduce his new signing to the success starved fans of Southampton that he brought the player on at half-time in a vital Premier League match. Ten minutes later he took the player off much to his own embarrassment!
He said famously at the time: "It was clear straight away that this fella was not who I thought he would be. He was a decent player, but not the world beater I was promised. I guess this goes to show that the best of us can get fooled!"
Sounness never revealed whether it was actually George Weah who contacted him, but it would appear to be more like a hoaxer who made the call on the player's behalf. After paying up his contract in full, a rumoured £5,000 (Dhs30,000), the player was told to leave... and very sharply at that if Sounness' world famous temper is anything to be judged by. The player was last thought to be plying his trade with non-league Gateshead.
However, stories like that have also made some clubs over-cautious and rumours were abound last season of two players, recently released from a British first division side, coming to the UAE to look for a club so that they could live with their Dubai-based girlfriends, but they apparently returned home without so much as a trial after being rejected by clubs unimpressed by them dropping in unannounced. Both players went on to play full seasons back in the English first division.
While it is unquestionably progressive for clubs to accept foreigners into their ranks, it remains to be seen whether the quality picked up for the coming season is a match-winner or an own goal.
Realising that the league's image needs to be raised dramatically, the UAE Football Association made the bold step of appointing Sportsworld Network as their commercial managers. Their goal is to raise the profile of the league to make it a more attractive proposition all-round to spectators, the media, and potential sponsors.
This is undoubtedly another giant step forward for football in the UAE as the Millennium approaches, but progress will only be measured on the success obtained at national level. With the Asian Cup just around the corner, it will not be long to see if progress has been made.
What the stars think of Dubai
"The greens are lightning quick and as smooth as you would find at any American course"... Australian legend, Greg Norman.
"I always look forward to playing in Dubai because the conditions are first class and the hospitality is excellent"... Six times European order of merit winner Colin Montgomerie, of Scotland.
"I have never played particularly well in Dubai but it is definitely the best early season event on the European Tour"... World top 10 player, Lee Westwood, of England.
"Moving the Classic to Dubai Creek showed the world that there is more to Dubai than just an oasis in the desert. I would like to see the tournament actually rotate around other city courses"... Rising star Thomas Bjorn, who based himself in Dubai last winter.