Even the biggest talents need someone to believe in them.
Rayan Yaslam is set to be a major figure for Al Ain in next month’s Club World Cup and the UAE in January’s Asian Cup. It wasn’t, however, always this way for the gifted playmaker.
A taste of first-team action was handed to him as an 18-year-old under Cosmin Olaroiu in 2012/13. It would only be fleeting until the arrival of coach Zoran Mamic in February last year changed everything.
The Croatian saw something that countryman Zlatko Dalic didn’t – a latent talent.
From standing on the periphery, Yaslam would go on to score four times in 35 appearances during a historic 2017/18 campaign for the UAE’s most-decorated outfit that contained – remarkably – a first Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup double.
“It was a huge step since coach Mamic came here,” says the now 23-year-old to Sport360°. “I am really proud of what I did last season.
“We achieved two trophies, so I’m really happy for me and the team.
“I am thanking coach Zoran Mamic for the opportunity. I hope we give all our efforts this year to create another chance to win some trophies again.”
Inspiration in the darkest moments was found close to home.
Older brother Rami, 37, represented the Boss with distinction from 2001-12. This spell included 2002/03’s hallowed AFC Champions League win, plus the harrowing showpiece loss in the same tournament that followed two years later.
The slender midfielder – a likeness between them is startling – also represented the national team in the Asian Cup in 2004.
But when Rayan steps out against New Zealand outfit Team Wellington for the Club World Cup opener at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on December 12, he’ll be achieving something denied to his esteemed sibling.
He says: “I loved football since I was a kid, seeing my big brother playing for Al Ain.
“He was my inspiration when I saw him play and he gave me all my motivation to continue in football, especially at Al Ain.”
The 2017 edition was enlivened by Al Jazira. They made a landmark run to the semi-finals, where they took the lead against European aristocracy Real Madrid prior to a second-half double from Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
With Madrid the headline act, once again, when the club game’s continental kings clash next month in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, is there pressure to repeat the feats of their ‘Al Clasico’ rivals?
Yaslam replies: “Al Jazira made a very, very good job in the last Club World Cup. We will try, Inshallah, to do the same or better.
“We spoke in the national team [about the CWC]. They spoke about it, how it’s a very different competition and atmosphere.”
The Asian Cup returns in January to the UAE after a 23-year absence. That 1996 generation was denied landmark success via a penalty shootout against Saudi Arabia in the final.
Signs of another deep run in the expanded, 24-team edition are not positive. Coach Alberto Zaccheroni has won just five of his 15 fixtures.
Alarmingly, only eight goals have been scored in this time.
The ex-AC Milan, Juventus and Japan tactician handed Yaslam a first call-up for last December’s 1-0 friendly win against Iraq. A debut would come off the substitutes’ bench in the same month’s Gulf Cup opener against Oman.
This “support” between player and coach is reciprocal, according to Yaslam.
“We just give all that we have to make our fans in the UAE happy,” says four-times-capped Yaslam.
“We give Zaccheroni all our support and we trust in him. Inshallah, we give the UAE fans all that they want in the Asian Cup.”
The 2018 Club World Cup will run from December 12-22.
With less than 30 days to go until kick-off, fans from around the world can still purchase their tickets by visiting fifa.com/cwc/tickets.
Al Jazira begin life without inspirational coach Marcel Keizer when Al Nasr visit on Monday in the Arabian Gulf Cup.
Keizer, 49, called an abrupt halt to five phenomenal months in Abu Dhabi when Portugal giants Sporting Lisbon came calling this week.
Assistant Damien Hertog, 44, has taken charge of a side who remain undefeated in the Arabian Gulf League and are well poised in the AG Cup’s Group B.
“First of all, I would like to thank the management of the club for their trust in my potential and my choice to oversee the team at this stage,” said the former APOEL No2 and Feyenoord academy manager.
“Marcel [Keizer] is with us for as long as possible, but we respect his decision and wish him success.
“I can assure that our work in the training exercises and matches will be undertaken with the same amount of enthusiasm and commitment, plus the desire to provide the best constantly.
Meanwhile, Al Ain tactician Zoran Mamic is fully prepared for the usual talent drain in the international break.
The Boss will be without six UAE call-ups, Sweden striker Marcus Berg and Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat for the trip to Fujairah.
“We will miss the efforts of our internationals, but my confidence remains great in all the elements,” said Mamic.
Al Wasl need to avert a crisis when they meet Ajman in Group A.
The managerless Cheetahs have won just one of their last eight matches, in all competitions.
“The performance of the whole team has been reduced in this period and not only the defence,” said defender Abdulrahman Ali.
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.