UAE football received its greatest shake-up in nearly a decade when it was announced on Tuesday that Al Ahli, Al Shabab and Dubai CSC are to be immediately merged for the 2017/18 Arabian Gulf League, with Sharjah and second division Al Shaab later following suit.
The shock decision in the afternoon from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, will see a new team formed called Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club and all combined assets from the trio pooled. This was followed on Tuesday night by a similar edict from Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, sovereign ruler of Sharjah, to create Sharjah Cultural Club.
The UAE Football Association and AGL organisers the Pro League Committee met to discuss whether next term’s top flight – of which all are members bar Shaab after Dubai’s promotion – will remain at 14 teams or be reduced to 12. A play-off could be implemented to decide the make-up.
The development – which follows the implementation last month of a similar plan in Qatar – comes amid a backdrop of repeated calls at various levels of the national game to alleviate the economic struggles of clubs by improved budgetary control and more efficient channelling of resources.
“Our objective is to build a club that can compete regionally and globally,” read a tweet from Dubai Media Office’s verified Twitter account, which attributed the quote to Sheikh Mohammed.
That announcement heralded the gravest change since professionalism was introduced for 2008/09, even though such moves are not unprecedented in recent history.
In May 2011, Ras Al Khaimah was brought into a rebranded Emirates Club. But it’s the profile of Ahli and Shabab, in particular, which makes this so noteworthy.
Ahli were beaten finalists in the 2015 AFC Champions League, with two of their seven top-flight crowns won in the last four seasons. The Red Knights – formed in 1970 – have, however, been ravaged by internal tumult and administrative disorder in 2016/17.
Shabab have won 11 major honours since they were established 61 years ago. But they have suffered dramatically declining crowds, with a historic low of 72 people turning up for last Saturday’s final AGL fixture – a 1-1 draw with Al Wahda.
Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, has been appointed chairman of the new Dubai club. Its headquarters are to be at Dubai CSC’s current site in Al Aweer, which will have its facilities upgraded.
No announcements have been made about the identity of the coach, local players and quartet of foreigners for SAADC.
The immediate effect was felt at Shabab yesterday, where a 17:00 press conference to unveil new boss Goran Tufegdzic was hastily cancelled.
It is not known how the change will impact Ahli, who on Monday play their round-of-16 opener in the 2017 AFC Champions League at Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli Jeddah.
Unstoppable Brazilian forward Fabio De Lima has humbly pinpointed the summer arrival of coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena for inspiring a superb campaign which ended with the cherished gong for best foreign player at the 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League Awards.
Fuelled by the 25 goals of second-top scorer De Lima, 23, the Cheetahs recorded their highest finish of the professional era with second. Success which also gained them entry to the AFC Champions League in 2018 for the first time in a decade, which seemed unthinkable during the fractious two-year reign of Gabriel Calderon.
Arruabarrena, 41, was plucked from the sidelines last June after he had been sacked by boyhood club Boca Juniors. Redoubtable team spirit and inspired football followed, facets which his star attacker was quick to praise and hoped resulted in a first top-flight crown since 2006/07 next term.
“I’m very happy, this is very important for my career,” said De Lima, who has now scored 61 times in 76 top-flight games since a July 2014 move from Atletico Goianiense.
“I say thank you to my colleagues, to my coach, to the club’s staff.
“It was a good season because the coach came and everyone changed mentality. The coach put a tactic that was very good for me, Caio [Canedo] and Ronaldo [Mendes].
“Thankfully, he now continues here [Arruabarrena signed a contract extension last month] and tries next season to go to Asia and have some competition for Al Wasl to become champions, because it’s been a long time since they have been champions.”
De Lima – who edged team-mate Caio and Al Ahli striker Makhete Diop – was one of few non-Al Jazira winners at the annual ceremony.
The title winners also dominated the Best XI Team, which included six of their players. Their UAE international Mohammed Fawzi, 27, took up the right-back slot, and he thanked the club for having the faith to buy him from Al Ain last summer despite two injury-ravaged campaigns.
He said: “First, I want to say thank you to all my brothers at Al Jazira. They helped me a lot.
“For two years in Al Ain, I never played more than 10 games maybe [in a row]. It means a lot to me and I am so happy about what I am now.
“We take the championship of the league and I am in the Dream Team.
“This means a lot to me because I had a big challenge to be good and show all the people I am still on the stage, still on the field.
“Hamdullah, God helped me a lot, the players helped me a lot.”
Historic top scorer Ali Mabkhout led the way as champions Al Jazira predictably dominated the 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League Awards, but their miracle-working Dutchman Henk ten Cate was stunningly denied the top coach prize by serial winner Cosmin Olaroiu of Al Ahli.
Unsurprisingly, after a record-breaking title win, the Pride of Abu Dhabi swept up five of the eight major prizes at the capital’s Etihad Towers on Monday night. These included goalkeeper Ali Khaseif winning the Golden Glove for a second time and 21-year-old playmaker Khalfan Mubarak taking home the Golden Boy Award.
There was no shock as Al Wasl’s brilliant 25-goal Brazilian forward Fabio De Lima collected the Golden Ball Award – Foreign Player. But there were gasps as Olaroiu’s name was pulled out of the envelope for a third Leader Award in five years after a campaign pockmarked by internal tumult and the concession of their top-flight crown.
Mabkhout, 26, made it a double of Golden Ball Awards for Emirati competitors as he edged successive AFC Players of the Year in Al Ahli forward Ahmed Khalil and Al Ain playmaker Omar Abdulrahman. This was reward for a landmark 33 goals in 25 games, breaking Asamoah Gyan’s record for the biggest season’s tally in the league’s history.
“I would like to thank God for this award and my colleagues in the team,” said Mabkhout, who further claimed the Golden Shoe Award and was a member of the Best XI Team. “I am upset because I think coach Henk ten Cate deserved to win the Leader Award because he is the best coach, but this is not to say that Cosmin is not a great coach.”
Jazira collected the most-ever points (68) and wins (22). But this did not stop Olaroiu from pipping Ten Cate and Wasl’s Rodolfo Arruabarrena, who gained the Cheetahs’ highest finish of the professional era with second and 2018 AFC Champions League qualification in a superb debut campaign.
For Olaroiu, a hat-trick of coach gongs after a third-placed league finish was due to the sterling efforts of his squad in the face of administerial adversity. “I get this award because of my players,” said the 47-year-old Romanian, who did lead the Red Knights to Arabian Gulf Cup and Super Cup glory. “I think I train the best players and it’s their performances on the pitch that I get rewarded.”