Indelible and unpredictable change highlighted a tumultuous year in the Arabian Gulf League that won’t swiftly be forgotten.
The very fabric of the sport in 2017 was torn apart as traditional names faced immediate extinction, unlikely upstarts broke a stranglehold on the division and omnipotent regimes fell.
Into this vacuum, new challengers broke through with startling alacrity. Beyond Al Jazira’s unlikely rise to just a second-ever top-flight title or heroically running European kings Real Madrid so close in a Club World Cup semi-final in Abu Dhabi for the ages, May’s merging of Al Ahli, Al Shabab and Dubai CSC was the defining event.
This was the manifestation of themes first witnessed in 2016 as oil prices remained low. In one edict, clubs with a combined 169 years of existence ended. A drop from 14 to 12 teams followed, rampant talk about further amalgamations not being realised.
Consumed by the dramatic switch of direction at Rashid Stadium, coach Cosmin Olaroiu departed earlier this month. The Romanian colossus had swept up 10 trophies in six triumphant years spent at Ahli and bitter rivals Al Ain.
A run of seven-successive draws saw club stalwart and ex-UAE tactician Mahdi Ali brought in, ostensibly through “mutual consent”. But a harrowing descent does not appear checked, coming force Al Wasl handing out a 3-0 debut defeat.
In contrast, success has been plentiful for Jazira. They have not been left untouched by institutional disorder, yet they rose from rank outsiders at season’s start to runaway AGL champions.
UAE hot shot Ali Mabkhout’s 33 goals in 2016/17 smashed the mark set by Asamoah Gyan in his legendary spell at Al Ain, while the most points (68) and most wins (22) of the professional era were accrued. Their title defence has not run so smoothly.
Although, this was forgotten when, unfathomably, leading against Madrid for 53 minutes in a highly creditable 2-1 loss. Jazira’s previous 2010/11 title victory was also the last enjoyed by anyone outside Al Ain or Ahli. Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s enlivening Wasl may now deepen the cracks in this duopoly.
Playing with a vibrancy to match their bright yellow shirts, the UAE’s 20th century kings are enjoying a precipitous rise. Elsewhere, the impact of the Qatar crisis on 2018’s AFC Champions League adds intrigue.
An element of soap opera is provided by whether the rumours about a switch abroad for Omar Abdulrahman come to fruition and if the ineffable Diego Maradona can guide Fujairah to the top flight.
Overall, an image of decline exists. Both two-year runs of AFC Player of the Year wins (Ahmed Khalil and ‘Amoory’) and ACL final losses (Ahli and Al Ain) were snapped. A sense of surprise defined 2017.
UAE football aficionados can only hope positive shocks now follow.
Here, we take a look at the individual awards:
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Ali Mabkhout (Al Jazira)
There is nowhere else to turn. Mabkhout was the driving force behind the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s title, outstripping a landmark by Gyan which looked set to stand for decades. His ruthless finish in the Club World Cup’s quarter-final against Urawa Red Diamonds set-up an epic clash with Real Madrid. As of writing, 44 goals have been scored in 46 club games.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Rodolfo Arruabarrena (Al Wasl)
What an impact. The affable and talented Argentine is a credit to the AGL. Let’s hope a new deal and trophies follow in 2018.
SIGNING OF THE YEAR
Makhete Diop (Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club)
The Senegalese centre forward has escaped from time served at Al Dhafra with a flood of goals. Since his procurement in the winter transfer window, technically in late December 2016, an outstanding 28 goals in 39 games have followed – with one fixture to play. This is made more impressive by his new club’s travails.
GAME OF THE YEAR
Al Jazira 1-2 Real Madrid (December 13, 2017)
To stand on the pitch with Madrid, 12-time European champions and FIFA’s Club of the 20th Century, was a remarkable enough achievement. But to lead for 53 minutes and come within inches of doubling the advantage (Jazira had a second goal marginally ruled out for offside) made this UAE club football’s greatest night. Marshalled by Henk Ten Cate, the Pride of Abu Dhabi made a name for themselves – especially goalkeeper Ali Khaseif – across the globe.
TEAM OF THE YEAR
All-action forward Caio Canedo has revealed contract talks have begun with Arabian Gulf League pacesetters Al Wasl, as clubs from his native Brazil, Qatar, Italy and Spain eagerly await developments.
Canedo, 27, has proved an excellent addition since he was snapped up from Internacional – initially on loan, before a €1.4 million (Dh5.8m) permanent swoop – in September 2014. An impressive 46 goals in 80 top-flight run-outs have followed from the selfless star, helping propel the Cheetahs from a relegation-threatened rabble upon arrival to current title chasers.
Fellow attacking inspiration Fabio De Lima inked an extension from 2020 to 2022 last week. Discussions about a similar renewal for his compatriot are now under way.
“The talks have already started,” said Canedo in the wake of Friday’s 3-0 dismantling of Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club. “Fabio went in first, because his situation and my situation are a little bit different.
“We are walking forward in the same way, it depends on the administration.
“I always try to play football and let my agent [Giuseppe Dioguardi] do his job.
“There is speculations. There are lots of teams in Brazil interested, also a team in Qatar.
“Something showed up in Italy and Spain, too. I don’t want to think about it.
“I want to do a good season and for the administration to sit with me and finish this as quickly as possible.”
كل الأمنيات والدعوات بالتوفيق للمشجع الوصلاوي علي حسين البلوشي المشارك في بطولة الألعاب الآسيوية البارالمبية للشباب والمقامة في مدينة دبي 💛 pic.twitter.com/L1TrKhd2I9
— Al Wasl SC (@AlWaslSC) December 11, 2017
Canedo and De Lima have elevated their employers to new levels since they both joined in the build-up to 2014/15. A pair of sixth-placed finishes followed under coach Gabriel Calderon, before another Argentine in Rodolfo Arruabarrena sparked a remarkable rise to second last term and put them joint top with Al Ain at the winter break.
No trophies have followed in this time, the closest being runs in the last two seasons to the semi-finals of the Arabian Gulf Cup. This is a situation Canedo is determined to change.
He said: “I really want to win something with Al Wasl. Myself and Fabio have been here for four seasons and we want to win something, putting our photo on their wall.”
Canedo was not able to add to his seven-goal haul in his 11th AGL display of the season, against ramshackle Shabab Al Ahli. But he drew fouls for De Lima and Anthony Caceres’ stunning free-kicks, robbing the ball off dawdling centre-back Walid Abbas to allow Ronaldo Mendes to slot in the second.
“The feeling is great,” he said. “I wish I had scored and it would be even better.
“I am joking, of course. Since we drew two games against smaller teams, Hatta and Ajman, we came into this game with a little bit of pressure.
“Finishing the first leg at the top means a lot. Our team was prepared for this since the first game.
“We continue to think that we have everything to be champions. We want to make history, man.
“This was our 26th game, straight, we didn’t lose [in all competitions]. We are breaking records after records.
“Hopefully, we can continue like this.”
Wasl sit top of the AG Cup’s Group B and next play Al Wahda in it on Thursday.
Just like Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo is playing himself through a lean spell in front of goal, Mahdi Ali insists he has nothing to prove after being unveiled as Cosmin Olaroiu’s replacement as Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club coach.
The Romanian’s revolutionary run at Rashid Stadium came to a shuddering halt earlier this week when his contract was ended by “mutual consent” the day after a sixth-successive draw was recorded against Al Dhafra.
Ali’s first assignment at the club where he spent his entire 15-year playing career, plus a brief managerial stint in 2009/10, could hardly be tougher as Shabab Al Ahli head to Arabian Gulf League leaders Al Wasl on Friday.
The Cheetahs, who are unbeaten in their last 25 matches in all competitions, were also buoyed by news on Wednesday that their Brazilian gem Fabio De Lima has signed a four-year contract extension until 2022.
Ali’s best work as a coach has been during a five-year stint as UAE national team coach, which was brought to a sad end in March with their 2018 World Cup hopes in ruins.
Prior to that, however, Ali led the Whites to an unprecedented third place at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia as well as Gulf Cup of Nations success in 2013.
He also led a talented group of emerging talent at the 2012 Olympic Games in London – many of whom make up the current senior UAE side – and the 52-year-old is adamant he does not need to convince anyone of the merits of his coaching.
“After being in this field for 16 years, I don’t need to prove anything to myself. I have done things which convinced everyone of my talents, and I have nothing more to prove,” Ali said, likening himself to Portugal powerhouse Ronaldo, himself the subject of criticism as both he and Real have endured a difficult start to the La Liga season.
The 32-year-old forward has just two goals in 10 La Liga games this season for Los Blancos but Ali insists this does not mean he has suddenly become a bad player.
He added: “A coach or player is basically the same thing. Sometimes you see Cristiano Ronaldo, he doesn’t play a good game. But that doesn’t mean he is not a good player.
“He does not need to prove that he’s a good player. Because everybody knows he is a good player. This is normal, sometimes you have a good result with the team and sometimes you are not winning, because another team is fighting.”
Ali, who began his journey with the UAE as assistant of the Under-16 team in 2003, played 194 league games for Al Ahli between 1983-1998, lifting two President’s Cups with the Red Knights in 1988 and 1996.
And at his unveiling back where it all began for him on Wednesday, the former midfielder said he is excited by the new challenge ahead.
“What I can say is it is good to have a new challenge and this challenge always makes you motivated to fight for this club and the goals we are looking for,” said Ali, who has taken the Rashid Stadium reins initially until the end of the season.
“I didn’t come here to prove something, I came here to accept a new challenge and to do something for this club. Because I think this club deserves to be in a better position.”
Devastating De Lima, meanwhile, will have delighted Wasl fans with his contract extension, which the club tweeted out on Wednesday.
There had been rumblings the 24-year-old – scorer of 11 goals in 10 AGL games this term – had been agitating for a move away from Zabeel Stadium earlier this season, but he told the club’s website he had turned down several “attractive” offers to stay in Dubai.
“I preferred to renew my contract with Al Wasl despite the many attractive offers,” he said.
“I am happy in the team and have a great attachment to the fans of Al Wasl. I want to contribute with my colleagues to achieve championships and the aspirations of the fans.”