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.
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