For one club in the Arabian Gulf League, a wait far longer than the summer recess is set to end this Friday when the new season gets underway.
Hatta’s welcoming of challengers Al Wahda sees top-flight football return to this rocky outpost, a 130-kilometre drive south east from Dubai containing some of the nation’s most-breathtaking scenery, for the first time in nearly a decade.
A transformation has occurred since the Tornado last breezed through. They narrowly missed out on the tumultuous developments of 2008/09 when professional football began in the UAE, finishing bottom to make their stay in the prior campaign the briefest possible.
Sweeping changes then passed them by. Hopes of an instant retort dissipated, replaced instead by the frustration of an increasingly interminable spell away from the main action.
Yet all this pain, and no doubt some envy, finally stopped in April. Under the aegis of Emirati coach Walid Obaid, the First Division League’s crown was lifted with a game to spare thanks to a 2-0 win at Al Thaid. Ambition and action has defined what has occurred since.
A total of 14 new players have been added by a board determined to ensure their promoted team will never again spend so long in the wilderness.
“We are very excited to play in the Arabian Gulf League for the first time in our career,” team manager Obaid Al Badawi told Sport360. “We will reach the required level and we hope to continue in the Arabian Gulf League.
“We have never had problems preparing for the fixtures for this season, from the choice of the players to the training camp because the board of directors and our Sheikh [Sheikh Saeed bin Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum] have supported us financially and morally.”
Hatta emerged as the class of the second-division field, losing just once in 16 games to finish two points clear of Ittihad Kalba – a yo-yo outfit who have instantly bounced between the two leagues since 2009/10.
This performance under Obaid, an ex-UAE, Al Shabab and Al Ahli midfielder, marked a significant upturn. Since their demotion eight years ago, finishing third in 2012/13 was the only prior time they truly threatened the top two. Indeed, they even dropped out of the second division from 2010-12.
This is in stark contrast to Emirates Club, who were simply called ‘Emirates’ at the time before their May 2011 merger with Ras Al Khaimah, who they were relegated with. The Falcons have gone on in the intervening period to win the 2009/10 President’s Cup, 2010 Arabian Gulf Super Cup and the 2012/13 second division, as well as compete in the AFC Champions League plus spend five campaigns and counting in the top flight.
A significant step-up in class awaits. Hatta have been ruthless in their approach, ditching the Brazilian trio of Jair Da Silva, Rodrigo Silva and Tassio Santos who got them there.
In their place for the AGL’s four-player foreign quota has come the Romania duo of attacking midfielder Mihai Radut and anchorman Adrian Ropotan, plus Burkina Faso striker Issiaka Ouedraogo – who struck a penalty during their opening 2-1 loss at Al Dhafra on September 2 in the Arabian Gulf Cup – and Jordan winger Yaseen Al Bakhit.
The 10 local players picked up all come from the top flight, with the standout recruits being experienced Emirates Club forward Mohamed Malalla and Sharjah full-back Bader Abdulrahman. This knowledge was key for Obaid when forming his squad.
“There’s obviously a huge difference between the divisions and we are aware of that,” the 40-year-old says. “Even when we signed new players, we got players with first division experience.
“Our preparation has been good but the foreigners need more time to gel. They are playing well but at the same time there’s a message for all that we still have until mid-October [20th] to sign new players, so anybody that doesn’t perform will not be in the starting line-up whether foreign or local – everyone should stay focused.
“I have confidence in my players and I’m sure they will give a different image in the league. Wahda will be a good indication of where we are and what we need to do. I promise the fans they will be better in the league and I’m sure the players will give their very best to stay up.”
Hatta headed to Europe for their pre-season, where they endured mixed results against sides such as Qatar’s Al Arabi and Germany’s SV Fortuna Regensburg. They have since been based in Dubai as improvements continue on Hatta Stadium, meaning last Wednesday’s 2-0 schooling by Al Wasl in the AG Cup occurred at a temporary home of Al Nasr’s Al Maktoum Stadium.
The club now hope to commence training at Hatta on Monday, with the visit of ex-Mexico and Atletico Madrid coach Javier Aguirre’s Wahda certain to occur on their turf. This has been one of many challenges for the club, but certainly not the largest.
For Ouedraogo, that has been the meshing together of a much-changed squad. He says: “In the beginning, it is very hard. There are too many new players, it is so hard. But we are trying to make a good job. We keep fighting and we hope all together we do not go down next season.
“I am enjoying myself very well here. We have had two months of preparation, I think we need a few more little things to be complete for when the league begins.”
Promoted sides often remorselessly dismiss the coaches which get them into the AGL. This trait saw Kalba replace Mourad Okbi with Italian Fabio Viviani on August 29, while both Dibba Al Fujairah and Al Shaab did the same thing to differing results a year ago.
Hatta have chosen another path. They instead gratefully granted Obaid autonomy over his transfer business, ensuring the only Emirati supremo in the top flight stands every chance of bettering his chastening run in temporary charge of already-relegated Kalba during 2014/15.
“We have left the decision to select the players for the coach because we trust his experience and ability to choose,” says Al Badawi. “He has a lot of experience in the field and has played for big teams. We trust in his ability to lead the team to the required level.”
Opening opponents Wahda finished third in 2015/16, hold the Arabian Gulf Cup and boast 25- goal Golden Boot winner Sebastian Tagliabue, Hungary hero Balazs Dzsudzsak and Chile maverick Jorge Valdivia.
Yet Malalla remains both undaunted and solely focused on the aim of ensuring another ceaseless spell outside the elite for his new employers does not occur.
He says: “The mood is good for the team, although the situation is very difficult for the coach.
“Inshallah, we stay up. Everyone at Hatta is working very hard so that Hatta stays up. We can do something in the league. Inshallah.”
Know more about Sport360 Application