The Arabian Gulf League has yet to even kick off and it’s already been a desperately poor season for Emirati football.
Barely two weeks into the new season and the UAE’s expected elimination from the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign has been swiftly followed by Al Ain’s exit from the 2017 AFC Champions League after an emphatic 3-0 loss to Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh.
And it had all started relatively brightly. On August 21, the Champions League quarter-final first leg at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain had ended 0-0, meaning a win or score draw in the return leg would see Omar Abdulrahman and co through to the semi-finals.
Just over a week later, at the same venue, the UAE produced one of their best performances in months to defeat Saudi Arabia 2-1, thanks to two sensational strikes from Ali Mabkhout and Ahmad Khalil. Edgardo Bauza’s men had the slimmest of chances of still qualifying to Russia.
A few days later, those hopes were comprehensively crushed with a meek 1-0 to Iraq in Jordan. While little blame can be apportioned to the new Argentinian manager for the elimination, no marked improvement has been apparent either, the defeat of Saudi apart, especially as so far he has stuck with the squad that his predecessor Mahdi Ali had overseen for years but clearly taken as far as possible.
Then, on Monday, came Al Ain’s chastising defeat in Riyadh, and the seemingly annual close call for Emirati clubs in the AFC Champions League.
So where does Emirati football go from here?
Talk of a full-blown crisis may be overly dramatic but there is no denying that since the high point of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia, when Mahdi Ali’s men finished third, the national team has stagnated at best, though many believe it has regressed alarmingly.
The World Cup qualifying campaign had kicked off in sensational fashion with a 2-1 away win in Japan. Unfortunately, it was all downhill after that.
Failure to get to Russia means that the UAE’s second golden generation of Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout, Ahmad Khalil and the rest might never get another chance to emulate the first one that reached the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Yet the best of this group of players will now have their eyes firmly on the 2019 AFC Asian Cup to be held in the UAE. As hosts, there will be nowhere to hide.
Bauza has already pledged to introduce younger talent, insisting that from this point on, players will be chosen for the national team on the strength of their club form and not on reputation.
Fans will hope that players like Ahmed Barman, Ahmed Al Attas, Khalfan Mubarak and others will not only be given the odd run-out, but fully integrated and prepared for international football.
Meanwhile, UAE clubs, two of which reached the 2015 and 2016 AFC Champions League finals, have regressed over the last 12 months on the continent.
In many ways, that is a symptom of the troubles taking place at home.
In February, revelations that almost all Arabian Gulf League clubs were suffering from financial difficulties and mismanagement rocked Emirati football.
So much so that the country’s leadership intervened and ordered the clubs to adopt a system of “Hawkamah”, or corporate governance. After years of surviving on government grants and the generosity of owners, coupled with an almost total lack of accountability, the clubs were finally being treated like other corporations and institutions.
The UAE Football Association even held talks with consultancy firm Deloitte with a view to providing a list of findings and recommendations that the clubs must adhere to. The future of Emirati football was at stake.
“The risk is quite simply some of your clubs will go out of business,” Sir David Richards, the Chairman of the FA Premier League, and an ambassador for the Arabian Gulf League, said earlier this year. “It’s as simple as that, because you can’t keep spending money that you haven’t got, we’ve all been through it, you spend money on players and transfer and you can’t afford it. Eventually that stops, because you just don’t have the resources to keep doing it.”
Even before the findings were returned, the authorities took matters into their own hands.
On May 16, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum took the revolutionary step of merging three Dubai clubs – Al Ahli, Al Shabab and Dubai Club – to form one new entity, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai FC.
Later that day, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah, announced that the AGL’s Al Sharjah and Al Shaab, then of the First Division, would also be forming one club.
Few fans could have much cause for complaint as for years Dubai has struggled to support five clubs – the three newly merged ones as well as Al Wasl and Al Nasr – within such a small area, with attendances rarely exceeding a loyal few hundred.
On Friday, the UAE’s newest club, Sharjah, will kick off the 2017-18 AGL season by hosting its oldest, Al Nasr, while Shabab Al Ahli Dubai FC welcome Hatta the following day.
It remains to be seen whether the streamlined 12-team league will improve the quality of football and, perhaps more importantly, to what extent clubs will show financial prudence.
That changes were needed, however, was beyond question.