As Ali Mabkhout surveyed the enamoured crowd while stood on stage at the 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League Awards, UAE football must hope he didn’t feel fulfilled.
The striker’s status as the winner of the premier Golden Ball for Emiratis, and star attraction at Monday’s glitzy ceremony at Etihad Towers, reflected a season of unprecedented achievement for himself and Al Jazira.
An unfathomable tally of 33 goals in 25 predatory games was the greatest in the competition’s history, beating by two Ghana superstar Asamoah Gyan’s fabled prior landmark at Al Ain from 2012/13.
These historic efforts drove the Pride of Abu Dhabi to a runaway first title in six years, earned with the most points (68) and wins (22) ever recorded.
The adulation came in waves as he was swamped for selfies by supporters, then the throngs of media hung on his every word in the packed mixed zone.
Mabkhout, just like successive AFC Players of the Year Omar Abdulrahman and Ahmed Khalil, has been here before. He swept up the top prize in the AGL two years ago as his once-burgeoning talent blossomed, during a season which also included being top scorer at the 2015 Asian Cup.
Regrettably and detrimentally for the growth of the sport in the Emirates, such laudable achievements have not yet led to any of the trio shattering the glass ceiling and making the switch to Europe.
The question which it must be hoped Mabkhout, 26, is now asking himself is: ‘what more can be achieved by staying in the UAE?’ Does he want to keep smashing in goals against second-rate defences, or truly examine his unquestionable – but untested – skills where the heat of competition burns brightest?
Sadly, there is no guarantee such unflinching self-inspection and unalloyed ambition is occurring.
The highs of the continental tournament two years ago are long gone. Mabkhout has struck only seven times in World Cup 2018 qualifying, as he and his team-mates will struggle to make next year’s tournament.
Aside from joint-top scorer Khalil and his 15 goals, all of the squad can be accused of stagnating.
Fresh impetus is required, beyond the exit of paternal coach Mahdi Ali and replacement with recently-dismissed Argentina tactician Edgardo Bauza.
Moves to Europe, with the stern tests and exposure to raised standards this would provide, must occur.
This would mean new ground is conquered. Faisal Khalil came close in early 2006, only for bureaucratic and cultural pressures being applied to keep him away from Chateauroux – then of France’s second division (Ligue 2).
UAE centre-back Hamdan Al Kamali failed to make any appearances while on loan at Lyon four years ago. His younger brother, Hamid, played in the Champions League’s preliminaries when on loan at Malta’s Valletta FC in 2014/15.
Nothing tangible came of Chelsea and Internazionale’s rumoured interest in legendary Al Wahda forward Ismail Matar after he won the Golden Ball at the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship.
A similar situation envelopes Abdulrahman, for whom work-permit issues torpedoed a switch to Manchester City in 2012 following a successful trial. He is currently linked to Fenerbahce in the Turkish press, but thoughts about a move actually coming to fruition seems, sadly, fanciful.
Mabkhout gained overtures from the Bundesliga in the summer of 2015, as well as from Premier League Watford plus two unnamed La Liga outfits.
Just like in this week’s interviews, he flirted with the idea of heading to football’s traditional heartland at the AGL Awards.
Yet the kind of intense desire to become the first Emirati to make such a permanent switch does not appear to be in existence.
Of course, it is not all wrack and ruin at Jazira. Abu Dhabi’s role as hosts at this December’s FIFA Club World Cup has given them a berth, alongside the sport’s finest teams.
But exposure to the likes of Juventus or Real Madrid should not be by chance. Mabkhout owes it to himself and his nation to become a pioneer.
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.”