Vladimir Weiss played one league game for Manchester City back in 2009. Given the amount of money at the club and the fact that he was barely out of his teens, it was always going to be tough for the Slovakian to find regular playing time. Yet sometimes when he is mentioned in the international media, he is introduced as a “former Manchester City star”.
In fact, after he left City the midfielder went on loan spells with Bolton and Glasgow Rangers before heading to Italy and Greece. In 2014, he joined Qatari giants Lekhwiya for two happy seasons before arriving at Al Gharafa earlier this year. Perhaps at this summer’s European Championship, the 26-year-old can do enough to get reporters to update his description from “ex-English Premier Leaguer” to “Qatari-based”.
That would be a welcome result from the tournament. For fans in the Gulf, the European season does not end with the UEFA Champions League final. Often in the past the European Championship was simply something to be enjoyed. Not this time – the region has horses in this particular race and not just Weiss.
The Slovakian is one of four players hoping to make their mark in the next few weeks and by doing so fly the flags for their clubs back in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Weiss is joined at the tournament by Al Gharafa team-mate Krisztian Nemeth of Hungary. And then there is the Romanian pairing of Dragos Grigore at Al Sailiya in Qatar and Lucian Sanmartean, who plays for Al Ittihad in Saudi Arabia.
What it means is that players from the leagues in Saudi Arabia and Qatar could be lining up in the second biggest football tournament in the world against opposition of the quality of France, England and Portugal and who knows who else if things go well? (And given the fact that only eight teams will be eliminated from the group stage, there could be more than three games).
The four-man Gulf delegation is a sign that the game is becoming more internationalised, but then we all knew that. To see the English squad made up of 23 Premier League players looks increasingly anachronistic as most squads consist of stars based around Europe and the world. This cosmopolitan spread is surely going to continue.
It is not only the European Championship. Two players from West Asi have also headed stateside to prepare for the Copa America. Bolivian playmaker Jhasmani Campos plays his club football for Kazma in Kuwait and has had spells in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, while Costa Rican Michael Umana is no stranger to the big stage, in the middle of his second season with Iranian giants Persepolis.
It is actually a little refreshing that the players from West Asia are not world famous. Leagues such the ones in Qatar and United Arab Emirates are lazily labelled retirement homes for big name stars who are looking to leave the big leagues of Europe for some easy football and hard cash. While there may have been the occasional player who fit that description, it was never fair to tar a whole c0untry’s football scene with dollar bills.
There have been a number of big names who have contributed plenty, just as Xavi, the only really big name star in the whole of the region, is doing at Al Sadd. The players that only ever came to take it easy and take the money were few and far between.
That is why it is to be hoped that the European quartet have their opportunity to shine in France and make the region proud. Part of that will depend on how their nations fare. Romania will fancy their chances of finishing above Albania along with France and Switzerland as will Hungary when it comes to Portugal, Austria and Iceland. Slovakia line up against Wales, England and Russia and even before their 3-1 win over Germany last week, no-one will be taking the team lightly.
If these players can make a headline or two then the fact that leagues in the region are not full of bloated old megastars but hungry – the veteran Sanmartean apart – stars at the peak of their careers, will enable a different side of Gulf football to be shown to a wider world.