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