Why you should watch UAE football
Football in the United Arab Emirates is generally consumed in one of two ways: in a packed bar on a Saturday evening or, remote in hand, in the front room via a beIN Sports subscription. The world’s most popular pastime sharply defines the expat experience in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where flatscreens showcase sporting battles being fought in countries at least three time zones away.
Of course, allegiance to your team isn’t something to be checked in before boarding the first flight to DXB, but it does mean that football fans tend to overlook an increasingly competitive local league. It’s only been professional for eight years, but the UAE Arabian Gulf League boasts a wealth of international talent, high quality coaches and, with tickets only a handful of dirhams, great value entertainment. Which is more than can be said for a season ticket at, say, Ipswich Town.
With the new season underway, we asked those in and around the game why residents of the UAE should drop their prejudices and catch a game. Or three.
1. More title contenders than Germany
Unlike many title races in Europe — Germany, France, even Italy — the UAE Arabian Gulf League is, at the very least, a genuine three-way battle. No Bayern-style procession here.
“This year, I see it being between ourselves, Al Ain and Al Jazira,” says, Roy Aitken, former Celtic and Scotland international and now Sporting Director of reigning champions Al Ahli. “We’re all very well-run clubs. At Al Ahli, we really benefitted from Cosmin Olaroiu coming in as coach from Al Ain, and have a talented, stable squad led by Brazilian striker Grafite, who has been both a superb goalscorer and an excellent role model for everyone here — a true professional.
“Then you look at Al Ain, who won the title in 2012 and 2013, and have the likes of Asamoah Gyan, while Al Jazira, double winners in 2011, have recruited big names — including a highly experienced coach in Eric Gerets — over the summer. Between us, we also provide 80 percent of the UAE national team. So, there’s exceptional talent in each. It’s going to be a very tough title to defend.”
It would, however, be unwise to discount last season’s runners-up, Al Wahda (Abu Dhabi) and Al Shabab (Dubai), who just missed out on an Asian Champions League spot and are now coached by experienced Brazilian, Caio Junior.
2. Al Jazira’s forward line
If there’s one reason to go to a game this year it can be found in the front three of Al Jazira, the Abu Dhabi club that has invested heavily in talent to try and break the Al Ain-Al Ahli duopoly. Over the summer, the club signed Burkina Faso winger Jonathan Pitroipa, who was voted player of the tournament at the 2013 African Cup of Nations, from French side Rennes, Manuel Lanzini from River Plate in Argentina and, to cap it all, Mirko Vucinic, the Montenegro striker who is fresh from back-to-back Serie A titles with Juventus.
“The new Messi, the new Riquelme… take your pick of the plaudits Lanzini has received,” says Chris McHardy, head of sport at Yahoo! Maktoob in Dubai. “It’s a major coup for Jazira to sign the playmaker. Then, in front of him, is former Juventus striker Vucinic, who is genuinely world class. Another big player for them will be Jucilei, a defensive midfielder with two Brazilian caps. They’ve made a massive statement this summer.”
3. …in fact, everyone’s forward line
It’s not just Al Jazira who have recruited players of international quality — indeed, the fact that they’ve had to says a good deal about the league. The aforementioned Grafite was Germany’s Footballer of the Year and the Bundesliga top scorer in 2009, while across Dubai, Al Wasl have signed his countryman Éderson, top scorer in the Brazilian league in 2013. In Abu Dhabi, Al Wahda can boast Argentinian striker Sebástian Tagliabué, who scored 28 goals in 25 league matches last season, and Bani Yas can call on Chilean international Carlos Muñoz.
Asamoah Gyan, top scorer in each of the last three seasons, is the still big dog at Al Ain but they have also just recruited 24-year-old South Korean international Lee Myung-Joo for a club-record Dhs18.4 million, demonstrating the increasing pull of the Arabian Gulf League in Asia.
“With more and more of this type of player coming in, the standard is rising every year,” says Ali Al Wahaib, midfielder for Al Ain and the UAE national team. “Many of them, like Lee, Gyan and Jucilei are internationals and have all helped improve standards. The local guys all say they have got better as a result and it’s definitely a better competition than it’s ever been.”
4. Play amateur talent scout
Anyone who saw the football tournament at the London Olympics will know just how many sensational young players have been brought through the UAE national set-up in recent years. Al Ain’s Omar Abdulrahman, 23, for instance, caught the eye of Manchester City and was invited to train with them in 2012. Together with namesake Amer, 25, and the likes of Al Ahli trio Majed Hassan, 22, Ahmed Khalil, 23, and Habib Fardan, 24, they form a “golden generation” that helped the UAE reach the games in 2012 and then climb into the world’s top 70.
“There are also others coming through that could really make a mark this year,” says Chris McHardy. “Al Ain have two to watch: the 20-year-old striker Yousef Ahmad, who has been banging them in for the youth team, and Ahmad Barman, a rangy central midfielder. One of the most rewarding parts of this league is seeing these young guys come through, get their chance and progress through to the national side. There’s so much talent here.”
5. Remind yourself where you live
For expats, the UAE league can provide not just a window into local culture, but also the chance to meet the people whose country you’re living in. “Emirati fans follow their teams with real passion, particularly Al Wasl who have a young fan base,” says Paul McDaid, a Dubai resident from Scotland who became a regular fan of the club after attending a game with a school friend. “There is a unique football culture, too, whether it’s chanting to the beats of the drums on a normal match day or the decorated car processions following a cup final victory.
“I went to a game when Al Wasl fans protested their treatment by the authorities by clearing the terracing and unfurling a banner over the empty space that read Is this what you want our games to look like? Fans here can be inventive and very loud.”
6. It’s more fun than a mall
Stadia in the UAE might not rival the Camp Nou for grandeur, but they are clean, comfortable, well-serviced and most even offer the golden fleece of adequate parking. There’s zero trouble and even bad language — provided you would understand it if you heard it — is a rarity.
“The facilities have improved a lot,” says Ahmad Darwish, die-hard fan of Al Nasr, located in Oud Metha. “Al Ain’s new stadium, the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, is as good as you’ll find anywhere, and Jazira’s Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium is also very good. Most clubs have family-only sections but women would feel comfortable anywhere. It’s safe to watch football in the UAE, no doubt about that.
“I would, as an Al Nasr fan, naturally recommend people to come to our stadium. It’s in a good location and we’re the oldest club in Dubai. You can buy players but you can’t buy class!”
7. You can help develop the league
Ask a non-Emirati football fan — and probably a few Emirati football fans, too — whether they have been to a local game, and there’s a chance the answer will take the form of a question: “Why would I watch that?”
The popular view is that it simply isn’t up to scratch. Of course, there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy about it: if people stay away, so will advertisers and sponsors and, therefore, the talent and expertise required to improve the product. Going means helping.
“The league has made massive strides since I came in 2010,” says Roy Aitken. “The professionalism is apparent right the way through the league. At Ahli, we have just hired former Sporting Lisbon manager Carlos Carvalhal to run our academy. We have introduced ProZone and proper medical teams, all through the vision of our president Abdullah Al Naboodah.
“People will be surprised when they come to games. They will see proper set ups with talented players in well-run, well-coached teams. It’s an exciting time and, hopefully, the message will get out there and the league can develop further.”