The Falcon of UAE Football Takes Flight

February 11, 2013 in Features

What do you know about football in the UAE? Let’s be frank; probably not a great deal. Perhaps it will ring a bell that Roy Hodgson once had a two-year spell as the manager of the national team between 2002 and 2004. Perhaps you’ll recall a minor media circus ensuing as Diego Maradona was appointed manager of Al Wasl in 2011. Perhaps you were surprised when �Baby Jet’ Asamoah Gyan quit Sunderland to move to Al Ain just over a year ago (and a little less surprised when you heard of his 5-year, £140,000-a-week deal), and, most recently, perhaps you became aware that our well-travelled friend Sven-Goran Eriksson was signed up by Al Nasr as Technical Director this January. But I’m guessing that’s about it.

When I arrived in the United Arab Emirates almost a year ago, I have to admit being almost entirely ignorant to the world of the Beautiful Game in this beautiful country. Pining for my beloved Fulham, I went in search of some local football to watch, and found myself attending a few league games at the various stadia in my immediate surrounding area of Dubai; namely Al Wasl, Al Nasr and Al Ahli. I began to widen my knowledge of the Etisalat Pro League and its various other competitions, plus the 14 professional clubs who take part, and was pleasantly surprised by the standard of football on show.

Despite the impressive quality on display at competitive games throughout the country, the overwhelming football focus here remains on the Premier League, followed next by La Liga and Serie A. Every single Barclays Premier League game is shown live on television via Abu Dhabi Sports, available with both Arabic and English commentary and studio analysis, so the temptation for most football fans is to stay at home and watch the action of the European leagues unfold on-screen. However, more and more spectators are getting up from their armchairs and discovering what they can see live on their doorstep. The UAE Pro League boasts some very talented players plying their trade here; from Middle East superstars like Mohamed Aboutrika, to internationally renowned names such as Ricardo Quaresma, Christian Wilhelmsson, Grafite, and the aforementioned Gyan. And then comes the matter of the local heroes.
In January of this year, after a very positive showing at the London 2012 Olympics a few months earlier, the UAE National Team headed to Bahrain to compete in the 21st Gulf Cup - this region’s equivalent of the Euros, or the African Cup of Nations. A young team full of energy and promise captured the nation’s attention – and hearts – as they fought tooth-and-nail to win the tournament for only the second time in the country’s history; an achievement all the more astonishing when you consider the average age of the squad was just 23. The victory sent the UAE into a rapturous state of elation, with men, women and children flocking into the streets to fly the flag and exhibit their national pride, and the most exciting thing is that there is an overwhelming sense that the best is yet to come from this inexperienced yet exhilarating team.
The cream of the current crop of UAE starlets is 21-year-old Omar Abdulrahman, affectionately referred to as �Amoory’. With the combination of his lovable mop of curly hair and exceptional set of skills, Amoory is doing what very few footballers manage to successfully do: engaging fans who had previously never had any interest in the sport. In sports marketing terms, any player who can motivate mothers to want to adopt him, men to want to be him, and girls to want to be with him, is on to a winner. In this sense, he could be referred to as the Emirati David Beckham; he even has that shy, naïve vulnerability we saw with Becks when he first emerged onto the scene (along with his blond curtains hairstyle). Abdulrahman, who plays his club football at champions Al Ain, is the most likely Emirati player to be exported to Europe, with reported interest from Man City (no surprises there) and Hamburg in the past few months, and though I’d love to be able to watch him play week-in, week-out here in the UAE Pro League, I think it would be a wonderful achievement for the player and for the nation to see him make his debut for one of the top European sides.
The Gulf Cup triumph has prompted a quite considerable cash injection into the UAE FA, and with public interest at an all-time high on the back of the victory, the future of UAE football is looking very bright indeed. On that note, I shall leave you with sight to behold: a clip of Al Ain’s recent �tiki-taka’ goal, scored versus Ajman; a 19-pass move involving every single player on the team. Enjoy.