The emergence of the Chinese Super League will not force Al Ahli to alter their business model, according to chairman Abdullah Al Naboodah.
China’s top flight has become a major player in Asian football during the past few years, with a record spend in the recent transfer window estimated at $300 million (Dh1.1 billion) - the highest outlay for any league in the world during that period.
Chinese teams recruited a plethora of high-profile players, including Jackson Martinez, Ramires, Gervinho and Alex Teixeira. The league’s transfer record was broken four times in one month, highlighted by Teixeira’s €50m (Dh205m) move to Jiangsu Suning from Shakhtar Donetsk.
In contrast, Ahli hold the UAE record having signed Moussa Sow last September from Fenerbahce for a reported €17m. China, who in Guangzhou Evergrande boast two of the past three Asian Champions League winners, now represents a significant threat to Emirati clubs in terms of player recruitment, although Al Naboodah says that will not affect Ahli’s approach.
The Arabian Gulf League leaders, beaten by Guangzhou in last November's Asian club showpiece, are comfortably the biggest spenders in UAE football.
“We’re sticking with what we know, to what we do best,” Al Naboodah said. “I don’t think we’re changing anything in our budgets, we’ll stick to what we’re doing. We might improve our squad in terms of investing in other players, but I don’t think we’ll run the numbers China runs.
“I don’t think we’ll increase our highest spend. If you look at €17-20m, some clubs in the UAE can afford it, but you won’t see it every season. You’ll see these deals every three or four seasons, for a special player.”
While China currently provides a more attractive destination financially for foreign players, the Arabian Gulf League has long been the preferred choice. The league turned professional in 2008 — China went pro in 1994 but became the CSL 10 years later — which in turn has had a positive impact on the quality of local players in the UAE.
At present, the UAE national team is the fifth highest-ranked in Asia, at 64th in the world, compared to China, 12th on the continent and 96nd in the global standings.
Moreover, the UAE can advance to the final round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup by defeating Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, while China, third in their group, must rely on other results to stand any chance of progressing.
“There’s two ways of looking at China,” Al Naboodah said. “If you look at their national team, it is not as successful as their clubs. What makes the clubs better in China, and I think they’ll improve even more, is the quality of non-Chinese players.
“The UAE have already taken these steps, which were huge. If you compare to where we were in 2009 with the non-UAE players and today, a lot of clubs have improved on signing better-quality players. This won’t stop. The quality of star players the UAE teams can attract will continue.
“And since 2009 the UAE players have improved a lot. That is the key. In the last two years, Al Ain reached the semi-finals of the Asian Champions League and Al Ahli the final. It is very important that, as a country and as clubs representing the country, we always at least reach the semi-finals of every edition.
“That tells you it’s an upward curve, and that also means the league is improving. There are certain parts of the league that are not — the referees, the ball is not in play enough — but in general the football is improving.”
Ahli failed to qualify for this year’s Champions League, but are certain to return to the continent’s premier club competition next season. The club, who currently have Sow, Everton Ribeiro, Rodrigo Lima, Kwon Kyung-won and Ciel competing for their four foreign spots, is expected to invest heavily in the squad again this summer. In January, Ahli signed UAE midfielder Khamis Esmail from Al Jazira for a fee believed to be Dh60m — one of the most expensive transfers for an Emirati.
“In football in general, if you want to be a team that every year is competitive in the league or at Champions League level, you’ve got to keep investing,” Al Naboodah said. “You cannot stop. Because the day you do, other teams will catch up and run you over.
“You have to always invest in the best players, both local and foreign, because in football there’s always room for improvement. There are variables in how much you’re going to pay, but you take what you have and you start building over it.
“Three years ago we weren’t the best in terms of nutrition; today we’re probably on a power with a lot of European teams. That is always in the back of our minds, trying to improve every day.”
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