December 23, 2016 may yet go down as one of the most important days in modern UAE football history.
No league matches took place that day. The UAE national team was not in action. And no major signings were made by any of Arabian Gulf League (AGL) clubs.
It was, however, the day that the financial imperilment of many of those clubs, for long the elephant in the room of Emirati football, was finally laid bare.
And the call to arms came from the Dubai Sports TV show Al Manasah. “We will say this out loud,” the presenter Hamed Alharthi said on that December day. “Yes, beware of our coming future, beware of the financial realities of your clubs, there is a financial crisis that’s knocking on the doors of our clubs. Our clubs are in a dangerous period, the clubs are facing crippling financial times. Clubs are not abiding by payments, whether to players, coaches or employees.”
The show claimed that sources connected to the AGL had revealed that most, if not all, clubs are operating beyond their means. Some, the show claimed, are currently unable to cover the payroll of players, administrators and regular employees. Outsourced companies, too, such as caterers and security firms, had not been paid either, the show said.
In the absence of any public disclosure of finances or audits, clubs’ dealings with players, agents and contractors continue to be shrouded in secrecy. The consequences for these clubs and UAE football in general could be dire, according to Mr Alharthi. “Should the Asian [Football] Federation (AFC) investigate we could be facing accusations of lack of transparency and eventual expulsion from Asian competitions, whether at club level or at Football Association level,” he said.
The UAE now is in the middle of a hard-fought Fifa 2018 World Cup qualifying series of games and the country is set to host the 2019 Asian Cup. A financial crisis that could see a club-level or international ban now, as has been in effect in Kuwait since 2015, would prove hugely damaging to the development of the game here.
The deputy chairman of the Dubai Sports Council acknowledged that since becoming a professional sport in the UAE in 2009, problems have developed in local football and professionalism has proved to be a double-edged sword.
“Before professionalism was established eight years ago, many things were healthier,” Mattar Al Tayer said on Al Manasah. “Less spending and maybe even better results. Now, with professionalism, unfortunately many clubs have overreached in financial and logistical matters.”
However, he said not all clubs were at fault. “You can’t generalise that all the clubs have acted this way. Some of the Dubai-based clubs have surpassed the budgets that were set, but some have remained within their budgets.”
Still, Mr Alharthi urged caution. “To everyone [in UAE football], beware of what is happening now. Please deal with this urgent situation, lets get back on track.”
The anecdotal examples Al Manasah provided sounded alarming; certain clubs were unable to cover flights for players to receive treatment abroad. Others had not paid the players’ salaries, for up to five months, and lower-paid employees for more than seven months. One was even at risk of having its electricity cut off due to unpaid bills.
But there have been the stirrings of efforts to improve the situation. The buzzword in UAE football now is “hawkamah”, literally, corporate governance.
Following the claims by Al Manasah, many major sporting figures in the country have appeared on the show to debate the issue. “If we take the reality of what is happening today, I don’t think any club is in a position to plan financially for the coming years,” Aref Al Awani, the Chairman of Abu Dhabi Sports Council, said on Dubai Sports.
“When you reach this stage, you’re in danger. We have to be realistic, we have seen practices in neighbouring countries, and in Europe, how France, Spain have started taking steps to protect the clubs and their futures.”
The good news is that Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed, the Deputy Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council and the Chairman of the UAE Football Association, has already instructed the UAE Football Association president Marwan bin Ghalaita to investigate the issue and deliver a viable, long-term solution to the issue of expenditure.
On Wednesday, the FA held a meeting in Dubai with Deloitte and, in and advisory role, the English Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards, to discuss cost control regulations for AGL clubs. A feasibility study on how clubs can become self-sustaining could be undertaken over the next six weeks, with findings expected be to presented at the next FA council meeting in June, Mr Richards said.
“I think we need to understand that the UAE league now is number one in the AFC so it needs to be a natural leader, so obviously you need to have the governance and processes that keep you at number and keep the clubs fully organised,” he said.
Before Wednesday’s development, the clubs themselves had started to take heed of the warnings but they are cautious over Al Manasah’s claims of plans to shake up the pro game.
“There are bad practices, the lack of transparency. It is a problem that needs looking at,” Ahmad Al Rumaithi, Abu Dhabi’s Al Wahda club chairman, told Mr Alharthi. “What I mean by transparency is that this problem has been around for years and everyone from the FA and pro league committee and the media were discussing it. Major alarm bells were ringing, but there was no step taken to face up to the problem. It needed a decision to be taken then.”
At the heart of the crisis may be the extravagant contracts many of the star players, particularly foreign ones, have signed.
While they enjoy the benefits of high pay and bonuses, others do not. In certain cases it is claimed players are not even in possession of a copy of their contracts. So far, no player has gone on record about unpaid wages, but Mr Alharthi had a warning for locally based footballers. “To the players, if you have a contract, stick with your club,” he said on the show. “Don’t tell me you’re looking for a big one elsewhere. I’ll say it to you bluntly, clubs are unable to spend big in the coming period, because some of them can’t even pay the players’ salaries.
“Many players are getting fed up and want to go to court,” he added. “One of the players called me and said he hadn’t received his salary in five months. I asked where the contract is and he said he didn’t have one, as the copy is with the club and he has no access to it. I told him, ‘You’ve lost your right. Forget that this salary will be paid.’”
The Pro League was established in 2009, with sponsorship worth Dh250 million from Etisalat and Dh350m in TV rights. Since then, clubs have spent almost all of these millions on attracting top foreign players to the UAE.
For a long time, the Pro League (before it became the AGL) was seen as a “retirement home” for players at the end of their careers seeking one last big contract.
That perception has changed slowly in recent years with the signing of more established internationals and younger talented players. What has not changed are the inflated wages.
The brutal reality is that the clubs paying these professional salaries, remain, in every other sense, amateur operations. For years they have functioned without the need to attract armies of fans to home matches, balance the books or sign major sponsorship deals. Money was no object thanks to the safety nets provided by TV cash, state grants and generous owners. In 2012-13, for example, the Dubai clubs Al Ahli, Al Wasl, Al Nasr and Al Shabab all received grants of Dh40m from the Dubai Sports Council. Similarly, clubs in other emirates get handouts of varying amounts. Emirates Club in Ras Al Khaimah, for one, relies entirely on the emirate’s Government for survival.
In a piece published by The National in January, Gary Meenaghan discussed the issues facing Emirati clubs, including the reality that top foreign players are now more likely to move to the Chinese Super League (CSL), not the AGL. The wages offered in China cannot be matched by the Emirati clubs.
And, as ever, there is the perennial, almost existential, issue of low attendances at all but a few of the AGL matches. There are several reasons for this; the size of the UAE’s population and its socio-cultural make up certainly play a part. The number of clubs does not help, either.
Dubai, for example, has four clubs all within a short drive of each other. In terms of attracting good home attendances, few cities in the world, large or small, would provide that many clubs with the chance to build a significant fanbase. Paris or Newcastle, for example, are single-club cities at the top level in England and France. Even in English football’s second tier, a city such as Leeds – the third-largest in the country – only fields one top professional team, Leeds United.
Outside Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Al Ain – home to one of the country’s most successful clubs, the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium and the UAE “golden boy” player Omar Abdulrahman – can attract crowds of several thousand for their AGL and AFC Champions League matches. Others, though, such as the Fujairah clubs, pull in only a handful of supporters at home matches.
“Official figures provided by the country’s Pro League Committee record the average attendance for the inaugural 2008-09 season at 2,411,” Meenaghan wrote. “But nine years on, growth has been virtually non-existent, with AGL clubs last year attracting an average of just 2,529 fans.”
For the AGL clubs, income generation is practically restricted to continental competitions, and even those make for a depressing read in comparison to expenditure. In 2016, prize money for winning the AFC Champions League was doubled to US$3m, while the pot for runners-up – Al Ahli and Al Ain over the past two seasons – is now $1.5m. These figures are dwarfed by salaries to the top players such as Abdulrahman, the current Asian Player of the Year, who reportedly earns Dh14m a year.
Despite a new TV deal agreed last year for Dh255m over three years and the continued backing through government grants, the honeymoon period of wild expenditure with barely any returns on investments is seemingly nearing an end.
Indeed, even in the CSL, the Chinese government, the driving force behind the football boom in the first place, has realised that the current trend of splashing out is unsustainable, and has started to push back against the clubs.
However, in the UAE, what was undone in eight years cannot be fixed in one, or two, said Mr bin Ghalaita on Al Manasah. “Let’s be realistic. We need a programme that will fix these issues over the next three years. Italy, Spain and Germany gave their clubs three years to reach a clean balance sheet. They were given a chance,” he said. “Today, it’s not only the figures that are important. We are talking about hawkamah, and we need to explain it, what do we mean by it. We need sound administration.”
Only time will tell if realism becomes the norm in the UAE’s currently not so beautiful game.
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