By Omar Al Raisi
Clubs in the UAE Pro-League are permitted to sign four foreign players, and only three can play at the same time during any competitive game. Was this rule designed to prevent clubs fielding entirely foreign first XI's? Of course it was.
Diego Maradona, David Trezeguet, Asamoah Gyan, Grafite, Lucas Neill, Luis Jimenez, Mark Bresciano and Mariano Donda … the star-studded list for the 2011-12 UAE Pro-League season just goes on.
From the media to the word of mouth, the UAE Pro-League has always been about which foreign players or managers have joined. In four seasons of professionalism, never has the brand status of the Pro-League skyrocketed over a summer break quite like the one just passed.
|"Bigger names attract more attention, and more attention gives greater power to your brand in order to communicate to your audience"
- Former UFL CEO Carlo Nohra
Former UAE Football League and now Al Ain chief executive officer Carlo Nohra said of the overnight revolutionising of the league: "It's essentially a product we're trying to sell, not just a game. Bigger names attract more attention, and more attention gives greater power to your brand in order to communicate to your audience. It has certainly grown in stature on and off the field in four years, and that's because of the types of foreign players we've attracted and the improvement of media coverage [locally and internationally] as a result. Names like Maradona have only reinforced the brand's power."
Those behind the UAE Pro-League are trying everything in their power to develop its brand and become the best league in the region. The crown prince of Dubai paid a huge undisclosed sum to Maradona (said to be around €10 million) as a gift for accepting to join Al Wasl, and, besides from his salary, a free mansion for him and his family to live in for the length of his contract. The signing of Asamoah Gyan by Al Ain was a big move considering he's in his prime at 25, is one of the best African players and was publicly chased by Tottenham’s Harry Redknapp.
But the reality is that players who join Pro-League clubs are usually reserves for their previous clubs or who are at the twilight of their careers and want to bag some easy money. And what better way to end your career than in one of the paradise holiday countries where the sun is always shining. Fabio Cannavaro, Trezeguet, Neill and Grafite are just a few examples of those who have decided to do so.
|"The reality is that players who join the Pro-League clubs are usually reserve players for their previous clubs or who are at the twilight of their careers and want to bag some easy money"|
Gyan himself stated that he joined Al Ain for money, while it was a good move for Sunderland as well. They were paid £6m (€6.87m) for a one-year loan deal. But in the race to develop the Pro-League brand, the local Emirati players are being forgotten. Despite their luxury lifestyle and huge pay, they still remain part-time footballers. They have been given professional contracts, yet they don't behave like true professionals. They are not willing to work hard because they don't have the hunger. The league still seems semi-professional: half-hearted efforts, disastrous results against regional opponents, and crowds allowed free admission to stadiums.
The grounds are still 75 per cent empty and the small group of fans cheering for the team are paid Dh50 (€11.50) per person, free transport to and from the stadium and food by club. The official average attendance for Pro League matches last season was approximately 2,600.
Al Ahli experienced the perfect storm of failed expectations last season. They were embarrassed on a global scale in 2009 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. After spending a huge sum on Cannavaro, the 2006 Fifa World Player of the Year, whose two-year contract was reportedly worth Dh22.5 million (€4.38m) per season.
|"[Foreigners] have to have hunger and professionalism that rubs off on the younger players. There is no point picking up quality names if all they are going to do is form cliques"
For the sake of UAE football, the Pro-League needs to ensure that national team players are playing to a higher standard. The introduction of players like Cannavaro, Trezeguet, Gyan and coaches like David O'Leary and Maradona will help drag that out of the players. They must possess hunger and professionalism that rubs off on the younger players. There is no benefit picking up quality names if all they are going to do is form cliques and cause dressing room issues in their squads as team-mates resent their their enormous pay packets.
The influence of foreign players and staff will help the teams in the league, but even in the UAE coaches are limited in their role. In many cases, there is a self-defeating culture of chopping and changing after a few bad results.
The Pro-League has to look at the long-term to improve the sport in the UAE.
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