With the new Arabian Gulf League season to kick off this weekend with the Super Cup between Al Ain and Al Nasr, a new array of foreign stars will be on show after making the move in the off-season.
The likes of former Arsenal midfielder Denilson, former Liverpool winger Ryan Babel, former Benfica striker Lima and Chilean international Jorge Valdivia have all moved to the AGL, joining the likes of former Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic and Brazilian international Everton Ribeiro who joined last season.
Throw in the likes Asian stars Mark Milligan and Park Jong-woo and it’s been a fruitful off-season for AGL clubs.
But as is now common when these moves occur, there are those that choose to belittle the league and lambast for players for “selling out” and chasing the cash.
One man who knows what the players will experience in the UAE is Australian coach Huss Skenderovic, who spent three-years with Ajman as their technical director. And from his experience, the influx of experienced players from East Asia, South America and Europe, along with better coaches, is contributing to a growing professionalism across the league.
“What it does is it enhances the local players and what you’ve found is that, not only through the coaches bringing a new philosophy to the region, that when the players come they bring their experiences and they bring a higher level of competitiveness amongst the local talent,” he told Football Channel Asia.
“When Mirko Vucinic came to Al Jazira, (he’s a) prime example of a guy that game straight out of Juventus into that environment and he’s giving so much back to the local people and the local talent in regards to seeing what a true professional is like and what kind of technical capacity this person has that’s been playing at the higher end of Serie A and when he comes into that region he actually gives back.”
That hasn’t always been the case, however, with some big name foreign signings doing little to discredit claims they were there for anything other than the paycheck, according to Emirati journalist Ali Khaled.
“The idea that players came here for a last big paycheck was not without foundation for a while,” Khaled, who writes for The National, told Football Channel Asia. “Players like Luca Toni, Mohamed Zidan and David Trezeguet did not endear themselves with their attitude or performances.
“But others like Grafite were a huge success and things have been gradually changing in the last three or four years.
“Younger players have joined, at a time when they are entering the peak years of their careers. In that sense, Al Ain’s signing of (Asamoah) Gyan was a game-changer. The AGL is no longer seen exclusively as a place to end your career. Some players like Ricardo Quaresma, having spent a short period here, have even resurrected their career back in Europe.”
Khaled argues that improved performances by the UAE national team, especially at January’s AFC Asian Cup in Australia where they finished third, together with the influx of talent from across the globe has helped grow the quality of the league.
“In recent years, the quality of players joining from abroad has steadily improved the league and this summer’s crop should do that again,” he said. “I think it helps that the UAE national team has given a good account of themselves over the last few years.
“That Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout are not trying their luck abroad may be disappointing to many fans, and indeed to Mahdi Ali, but it’s good news for the league.
“It was interesting to see the reaction to Omar Abdulrahman and other members of the UAE squad during the Asian Cup. Many fans and journalists were pleasantly surprised, even shocked, by how good they can be.
“The more Australian and foreign players (that) move here, the better for the AGL in terms of quality, and subsequently for its reputation.”
But while improvements have been made, both Skenderovic and Khaled agree there is still a lot of room for improvement.
“The standard of play in the league is improving but still has some way to go to reach the competitiveness of other Asian leagues like say Japan, Australia or Iran, or even Saudi Arabia,” Khaled admitted. “Mahdi Ali has consistently made the point that the intensity of the league is nowhere near that required for international football.”
Skenderovic agreed, and gave an insight as to why based on his personal experiences.
“Technically they’re [local players] all very good, but it’s the habits that surround the game that they’re all very poor at,” he said. “So their diets, the way they sleep, the way they conduct themselves in terms of their rehabilitation for instance, their recovery, the way they go about pre-game. It’s all extremely poor. And that’s only because of education.”
“Their lifestyle isn’t really professional, whereas in Australia we’ve been educated for years whether you’ve been to an AIS program or a state development program it’s all about hydration, sleeping well, developing good habits. They are years behind in that.”
It’s for this reason that, arguably, more important than quality players are quality coaches. While some, according to Skenderovic, accept the ‘UAE way’, others challenge and bring about change, particularly at youth level.
“Where I am seeing a change was from the younger generation, the 15-18 year olds, it was easy to change their habits,” Skenderovic, now back in Australia, said.
“You bring in some other coaches from Croatia, from Portugal, Spain, they bring about that change and my role as technical director was about educating those coaches to say “OK make a change in this area,” I’m not saying making huge changes but subtle changes and subtle habits that they start to develop.
“I don’t think we’re going to see that change yet, we’re going to see that change with another three to four years of education. So it’s like a normal educational process, you need to be able to implement it, keep reiterating the message and slowly you start seeing a change.”
With the likes of John Obi Mikel, Gervinho, Luiz Adriano and Mario Balotelli all linked with moves to the UAE this summer, it’s clear AGL clubs have big ambitions and the influx of stars each summer will only grow as players are attracted by the bright lights of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
And as the AGL grows and develops, that can only be a good thing for Emirati football.