UAE football: uncertain times as China flexes its muscles

UAE football turned professional in 2008. But despite improving results, the game is hit by poor attendances and international rivalry.

The Al Jazira team take to the pitch in August 2011. Mike Young / The National
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As the football transfer window prepares to close next Tuesday, the newfound riches of Chinese clubs have the chairmen of Europe’s top sides feeling fretful each time their phone rings. Chelsea’s Diego Costa, Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus’s Gonzalo Higuaín have all attracted attention from East Asian outfits, who between them have spent close to Dh1 billion in the past month alone. Yet China’s unshackled spending is not only striking fear into high-profile European clubs who previously only had each other to worry about.

Closer to home, football in the UAE is growing increasingly wary too. Next year will mark a decade of professionalism here but despite Arabian Gulf League (AGL) clubs finishing runners-up in the Asian Champions League twice in the past two years, the future of the game here has already been slowed by the flexing of financial muscle by the Chinese Super League (CSL).

And it appears set to worsen.

“The Chinese are spending a lot of money now and are able to take good foreign players from our clubs,” says Yousuf Al Serkal, president of the UAE Football Association from 2004-2008 and 2012-2016.

“Now players in the Emirates are being approached to go play in China and it’s an attractive option, considering what’s involved. I think the Chinese have ambitions for their league to reach the same level as Japan and Korea.”

CSL clubs are bankrolled by huge corporations willing to spend eye-watering sums in a bid to quicken Chinese president Xi Jinping’s goal of seeing his country win the World Cup by 2050.

World football, long operating in a financial realm unfathomable to most sports, has never seen spending such as the £615,000-per-week (Dh2,823,600) deal Shanghai Shenhua agreed to pay Carlos Tevez or the £58 million (Dh266m) Shanghai SIPG paid Chelsea for an out-of-favour player, Oscar.

“This can only hurt our championship,” says Al Serkal. “We are already seeing it.”

In 2015, before the likes of Axel Witsel and John Obi Mikel were upping sticks for Tianjin, Al Ain sold Asamoah Gyan, the three-time AGL top goalscorer, to Shanghai SIPG. Four months later, Guangzhou Evergrande, complete with £25m (Dh115m) Brazilian pair Paulinho and Ricardo Goulart, beat Al Ahli in the Asian Champions League final.

The UAE league knows the feeling of being in the spotlight. In 2011, the AGL was being spoken of worldwide when it was announced Diego Maradona would coach Dubai-based Al Wasl. Yet nowadays should a high-profile manager such as Manuel Pellegrini or André Villas-Boas be willing to switch Europe for an Asian adventure, AGL clubs – even with the lure of tax-free wages – are unable to compete. Instead, the UAE now opts for lesser-known coaches, such as Zlatko Dalic and Henk ten Cate.

Al Wasl’s head coach Diego Maradona protests a call in a game against Al Ain, April 2012. Mike Young / The National

Most consequential though, with China – like the UAE – being allocated four places in the Champions League, AGL’s hopes of winning the continent’s main competition are slimmer than ever. China has boasted the best team in Asia twice in the past four years, despite it being the UAE FA who made continental success the ultimate goal when they introduced professionalism in 2008.

Although the Emirates’ domestic league has a history that dates back to 1973, it took 35 years before the professional era arrived, heralded by the 2008 Super Cup. The previous year, the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) had proposed a new law, ruling that each association that intended to compete in the following season’s Champions League must run a professional league. It said nations who failed to meet this criteria would be rejected.

The new regulations resulted in the launch of the independently-run 12-team UAE Football League (UFL), with title sponsorship sold to Etisalat for Dh250m and TV rights going for Dh350m. With money flooding in, clubs spent big, signing stars such as Rafael Sóbis, who swapped Real Betis for Abu Dhabi's Al Jazira, and Jorge Valdívia, the Chilean who joined Al Ain for Dh79m. The Guardian newspaper even asked: "Is it really possible that the United Arab Emirates could boast the biggest and best league in the world?"

Almost a decade later and name changes from the UFL to the Pro League to the current AGL, and the answer to that question is clear. But to judge the league’s success against such hyperbole is unfair. The baton of big-spending may have been passed eastwards, but the goal of professionalism was never to be the best league in the world.

Romy Gai, then UFL chief executive, limited the league’s ambitions to being “one of the best in Asia”. Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithi, FA president during the inaugural professional season, said he hoped it would “contribute to the improvement of the national team” and “help our clubs win the Champions League”.

Measured against Al Rumaithi’s more realistic ambitions, UAE football must be commended. The national team won the Gulf Cup in 2013, finished third at the 2015 Asian Cup, have progressed to the final phase of World Cup qualifying for 2018, and sit at No 64 in Fifa’s world rankings – the country’s highest position since 2001. Even before this month’s announcement that the World Cup will be expanding to 48 teams from 2026, there was growing belief the UAE would soon be returning to football’s grandest showcase for the first time since their only appearance at a World Cup in Italy in 1990.

Footage from the documentary,

The Lights of Rome

(2016), about the UAE’s bid to reach the 1990 World Cup. This shot shows Khalil Ghanim celebrating scoring a goal against China in 1989, a game the UAE won 2-1, helping the country qualify for Italia ’90. Courtesy Image Nation

There is similar success to be found in the Asian Champions League. Although the tournament’s format has changed in recent years to ensure East and West Asia each have a representative in the final, the Emirates’ continental pedigree is growing.

Before the establishment of professionalism, UAE clubs had reached the final of Asia’s premier club competition just twice in 27 years: Al Ain won in 2003 before reaching the final again two years later. That figure, however, has doubled in recent seasons with Al Ahli’s 2015 defeat to Guangzhou being emulated 12 months later by Al Ain, who lost to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Since last year, the Champions League winners receive US$3m (Dh11m) and runners-up $1.5m, yet both figures pale in comparison to the annual government grants UAE clubs receive. AGL chairmen have spent millions in their quests to conquer Asia, yet have largely been able to do so only because of handouts.

Al Jazira epitomised this era of excess by approaching the most recent transfer window with seven foreign players on their books despite clubs only being allowed to register four overseas players. Two players deemed surplus to requirements, Mirko Vucinic and Jefferson Farfán, were each earning approximately €4m (Dh15.8m) per year.

Abdullah Al Naboodah, the former chairman of Al Ahli, said prior to his dismissal this month along with the entire board, that teamwork is more important than signing big names. He added, however, that Al Ahli must secure the Champions League soon given China’s free-spending.

“Am I concerned? Of course. Over the next few years it’ll be very difficult to compete with the Chinese clubs. In the next few years they’ll improve. The gap will not necessarily grow, but it’ll start widening in about five or six years if they continue to spend like this,” he said.

Figures for this season are not available, however, in 2012-13, Dubai Sports Council provided Dh40m grants to Al Ahli, Al Wasl, Al Nasr and Al Shabab. According to Al Serkal, recent achievements must be savoured because such success is unsustainable in the current climate.

“I didn’t expect our teams to reach consecutive Champions League finals but it’s costing them too much to maintain this level,” he says. “The government is re-evaluating whether it’s feasible to continue spending so much money on football and at Al Ahli there has already been a decision by the local government to cut the grant.

“Maybe this season we will have clubs competing, but in three or four years I don’t think we will be in a situation where our clubs will be reaching finals. And this will obviously impact the quality of our domestic game.”

While a new TV deal for the AGL will bring in Dh255m over three years, it is common knowledge the local game is experiencing troubled times, with several clubs in huge debt and rumours some have been unable to pay staff. And while professionalism has produced results on the pitch, the local game’s greatest failure off it remains its inability to generate ticket revenue.

Official figures provided by the country’s Pro League Committee record the average attendance for the inaugural 2008-2009 season at 2,411, but nine years on, growth has been virtually non-existent, with AGL clubs last year attracting an average of just 2,529 fans. The AGL has expanded to include 14 teams in that time, slightly diluting the average, but that figure represents close to a third of what the nearby Saudi Professional League attracts while, over the same period, the Chinese Super League has witnessed growth of almost 8,000, going from an average of 16,389 in 2009 to 24,162 in 2016.

Tonight Al Ahli face Al Ain at the 18,000-capacity Rashid Stadium in a fixture that has been known to attract upwards of 10,000 spectators.

“We lack in terms of fans and have no culture of attendance in the UAE,” says Al Naboodah. “Big matches are well attended, but it’s not week-in, week-out. Fans simply won’t attend if we play against lower-ranked teams. We lack that here, in general.”

Empty seats at an AGL match between Dibba and Al Wahda at Fujairah Football Club, August 2015, reflect the low attendances at many games. Pawan Singh / The National

Clubs have previously mobilised innovative ways to tempt fans in. In 2011, the AGL average attendance hit a record high of 3,576, in large part courtesy of Al Jazira, which organised half-time raffles where participants could win a Ferrari, and Al Wasl, whose appointment of Maradona resulted in a 53 per cent increase in club attendance. Yet, when the Argentine and the automobiles sped off into the distance, so did the spectators. This problem of poor attendances also affects the national team. In 2014, head coach Mahdi Ali raised the issue of the lack of support at two friendly games against Uzbekistan and Australia.

With 85 per cent of the UAE’s nine-million population being immigrants, no one is under any illusion regarding the size of the untapped expatriate market. Yet appealing to them has so far proven difficult. Promotional material runs only through channels owned by TV rights holders; the media equivalent of advertising inside the stadiums. And while the FA have organised trophy tours and player appearances at malls and schools, there is still a sense of irrelevance among non-Emirati football fans.

A lack of English-language TV coverage does not help. Another area that could be explored is opening the AGL to non-Emirati residents. (Each club is only allowed to bring in four foreign players.) There are many examples of talented youth players born and raised in Dubai to foreign parents and resultantly unable to play for AGL teams. Instead they go to clubs in England or Spain or elsewhere, whereas had they been able to play here, the club conceivably not only would improve, but they would likely attract more expat fans through the player’s friends and family.

With a national plan for local clubs to be financially viable by 2021, the dilemma must be solved soon or uncertainty lies ahead.

“Let’s state facts: we have limitations,” says Al Serkal. “With the population of the UAE, you can only do so much. When you compare UAE to China or other countries that have larger populations, it’s difficult.

In order to improve, we have to make the whole experience more attractive: improve the stadiums, organise competitions… because if we are relying solely on the quality of the game, it won’t work.

“Fans watch games from Europe so when they compare to our league, they prefer to stay in the cafe watching Barcelona,” he says.

During a conference in Dubai last year, Noel Mooney, marketing manager for Uefa, football’s European governing body, recommended that UAE clubs create an emotional connection with fans, improve online content and ensure the fixture list remains constant, allowing spectators to plan in advance.

Long-term planning is key, Mooney added. “If you can’t tell me exactly where you want to be in five years’ time,” he said, “you are going nowhere.”

Regrettably, the current climate dictates that for many involved with UAE football, if asked today where they want to be in five years, the answer would likely be China.

Gary Meenaghan is a former sportswriter at The National. He is now based in Brazil.