The importance of a decision can often be determined by the status of the person making it.
This week’s proclamation to end encryption of the Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup could not have come from a higher source – His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, Emir of Abu Dhabi and Supreme Commander of the Union Defence Force.
A flood of support followed on social media and beyond. The ‘blackout’ had not been popular.
UAE football already spends far too much time in the shadows without choosing, itself, to shut off wide sections of an already small television audience.
This interjection had been long awaited since 2015/16’s premature decision to offer a full pay model to view the Emirates’ top flight.
It was meant to echo the advancement of professionalism. The intervening years, however, have only highlighted the vast strides yet to be made by a competition that only dropped its amateur status a decade ago.
Put bluntly, people will pay to watch the Premier League, Serie A or La Liga. The AGL is a hard sell, for all but the most committed.
Encryption was designed to promote higher standards, grow revenue streams, improve financial self-sustainability and bring fans back into the stands after regular season-on-season attendance drops counted in double-digit percentage points.
On these counts, it can only be judged as a failure. Wrong time, wrong league.
But a reversal of policy, in this moment, should not be judged as a sign of weakness.
Forget Al Jazira’s headline-grabbing Ferrari giveaways in 2010/11 and 2012/13. Or 2015/16’s Mercedes raffle at – the now-defunct – Al Ahli. These stand as gimmicks, with little long-term value.
A broad, coherent strategy has been discernible during the two-year stewardship of visionary CEO, Waleed Al Hosani.
For the Abu Dhabi-native and boyhood Al Wahda fan, a sense of community has underpinned efforts to grow the domestic game.
The AGL has, for far too long, felt like a closed shop. Approximately 90 per cent of the UAE’s 9.5 million population are expatriates, and yet their presence has been ignored.
Marketing initiatives were not consistent and tickets were hard to procure for non-Arabic speakers.
Even among Emiratis, outreach programmes had, broadly, diminished since the amateur days.
Under previous regimes, the AGL appeared to be sleepwalking towards obscurity. Not anymore.
Rules by organisers, the Pro League Committee, have ensured funds are set aside by each of the 14 top-flight teams for marketing and community activities. Rather than the wages of another foreign signing.
In future, fan loyalty will be earned, rather than bought.
Electronic ticketing is now readily available and easily accessible in English or Arabic.
Social media was largely ignored for foreigners before 2018/19. The new English-language official Twitter account has discovered an entertaining ‘voice’ – it features shareable cartoons, enlightening infographics and even an interaction with the acerbic Roma account that has become such cult viewing.
The match-going experience is also set for vast improvement. A number of stadiums have been upgraded to the highest standards for January 2019’s Asian Cup.
Broken plastic seats and permanently closed food and beverage stands are, increasingly, a thing of the past.
Interest has been piqued. Yet these initiatives were useless when television was misused.
Now, a funny post might just lead the uninitiated to flick over to Abu Dhabi Sports or Dubai Sports. Critically, open minds will no longer be met with blank screens.
Marcel Keizer’s successful five-month tenure at Al Jazira is set to imminently end after a compensation package was agreed with Sporting Lisbon.
Keizer, 49, undertook training on Wednesday night – and could even stick around for Thursday’s session – ahead of landing in the Portuguese capital on Saturday as replacement for dismissed ex-Al Wahda and Sharjah coach Jose Peseiro. Leoes agreed to meet the €550,000 (Dh2.2 million) release clause in the two-year contract signed only in June by the ex-Ajax supremo.
A swift return to Europe proved too tempting and Jazira’s enamoured board could not convince him to stay. The club are now intent on appointing a third-successive Dutch coach.
Long-term Bert van Marwijk assistant Roel Coumans, 48, recently helped work wonders with Saudi Arabia, plus went with Australia to World Cup 2018.
Keizer’s No2, Damien Hertog, has also impressed senior figures, while the likes of ex-APOEL leader Mario Been are unattached.
Keizer – successor to the iconic Henk ten Cate – has overseen an unbeaten start in the Arabian Gulf League, plus a welcome return to a traditional swashbuckling style. Jazira currently sit second, only two points off leaders Sharjah.
Time is at a premium now for UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni after his penultimate training camp before January 2019’s Asian Cup began in Dubai on Tuesday.
A 28-man squad was selected by the tournament hosts for the get together at Nad Al Sheba, that also contains November 16’s friendly with Bolivia and November 20’s gala meeting with Egypt.
Here are the talking points:
IT’S ALL ON MABKHOUT
Just one man is left standing from the UAE’s ‘Big Three’.
Tears flowed last month when knee ligaments were torn by superstar playmaker Omar Abdulrahman. He’ll be lucky to kick a ball again in 2018/19, never mind the Asian Cup.
Persistent fitness problems at Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club have seriously impinged World Cup 2018 qualifying’s global joint-top scorer, Ahmed Khalil.
Al Jazira hot shot Ali Mabkhout is the only talisman present. With nine goals in eight Arabian Gulf League games, he’s in decent form.
المهندس مروان بن غليطة رئيس اتحاد الكرة وعبدالله ناصر الجنيبي رئيس لجنة دوري المحترفين وهشام الزرعوني عضو مجلس الإدارة ومحمد بن هزام الظاهري الأمين العام لاتحاد الكرة والدكتور حسن سهيل عضو لجنة المنتخبات الوطنية يشهدون تدريبات منتخبنا الوطني في ملعب ند الشبا ..#منتخب_الإمارات pic.twitter.com/I6D2AEShSK— UAE NT (@uaent2019) November 6, 2018
CASE FOR THE DEFENCE
The UAE’s travails in attack are well known – since Zaccheroni arrived in October 2017, only eight goals have been scored during 15 matches.
At the other end of the pitch, things also aren’t looking rosy.
In seven matches since last winter’s Gulf Cup, clean sheets were only kept against minnows Laos and Andorra.
Veteran Ismail Ahmed is creaking and youngster Khalifa Mubarak requires work. A recall for versatile Shabab Al Ahli defender Walid Abbas offers a potential cure.
MAKING THE BIG STEP
A youthful edge is present in Zaccheroni’s roster.
Al Nasr forward Mohamed Al Akbari is back in favour, while Jazira’s Khalfan Mubarak must pull the strings in Amoory’s – lengthy – absence. Pride of Abu Dhabi forward Ahmed Rabea and Al Dhafra loanee Saeed Jassem also get fresh chances.
Continued reward for a 2018 Asian Games bronze has come for skipper Ahmed Rashid, goalkeeper Mohamed Al Shamsi, Sharjah midfielder Majid Surour and Jazira prospect Zayed Al Ameri.
Of this sprightly cohort, however, only seven 2018/19 top-flight goals have been scored. Mubarak accounts for four of them.