AL AIN // Al Ain's preparations for the upcoming Pro League season have been dealt a major blow after it was confirmed yesterday that Jorge Valdivia, their inspirational Chilean playmaker, left the club to return to Brazil to rejoin Palmeiras on a five-year contract - less than a month before the new campaign kicks off.
Valdivia, 26, who left Al Ain's training camp in Austria on Tuesday to fly back to Brazil to complete the transfer, was half way through a four-year contract with the nine-time UAE champions. Luiz Gonzaga Belluzzo, the Palmeiras president, confirmed on the club's official website that Valdivia was returning to the team where he was a cult hero before his move to the Emirates. "I want to assemble a team to give love to the fans," Belluzzo said. "In the streets, people always spoke of Luiz Felipe Scolari and Valdivia. I hope they are now satisfied."
Valdivia will be coached by Scolari, the man who guided Brazil to their 2002 World Cup triumph in Japan/South Korea, who also returned to Palmeiras after two seasons with Bunyodkor, the big-spending Uzbekistan side. During a three-year spell in charge from 1997 to 2000, Scolari endeared himself to the club's supporters by winning the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the European Champions League, in 1999.
Valdivia's departure is a setback for the Pro League after a summer of big-spending and increased publicity, led by Al Ahli who recruited Fabio Cannavaro, the Italian 2006 World Cup-winning captain and Fifa Player of the Year the same yeat, and David O'Leary, the former Premier League manager. Valdivia, who cost Al Ain Dh79 million in 2008, was the Pro League's highest profile foreign import and the only player to represent the Pro League at the World Cup, where he helped Chile to the last 16 in South Africa.
Belluzzo said it had taken a lot of work to push the transfer through and convince Al Ain to part with their prize asset. "People say that was a novel move, and I also see it that way," Belluzzo said. "We took the time needed because of the magnitude of the negotiation. The fans sometimes seem to think it is as simple as purchasing Valdivia from the grocery store. It doesn't work that way, we really had to convince the other party. In this period, we worked quietly. It took a lot of time but we succeeded at the end."
Al Ain officials were not available for comment yesterday but they are now left with a huge task of finding a replacement for Valdivia. "Al Ain did not want to give up Valdivia," Belluzzo was quoted as saying by the Xinhua news agency. "He is idolised there. However, Valdivia wanted to return to Brazil in order to be closer to his family. His second son was recently born. Since he already has a high amount of affinity for Palmeiras, his return was an easy choice."
The transaction cost Palmeiras an estimated US$7.7m (Dh28.6m), meaning Al Ain have made an Dh50.4m loss, and Valdivia is expected to be in Scolari's line-up for Sunday's game against Corinthians in the 12th round of the Brazilian Championship. Palmeiras are 10th in the table with 14 points. Valdivia will be paid about $100,000 a month. Al Ain's opening Pro League game is against the promoted Dubai on August 26.