A transfer window that appeared to peak with a couple of high-profile European recruits added an even loftier talent this week.
After Paco Alcacer and Andriy Yarmolenko – summer acquisitions at Sharjah and Al Ain respectively – Barcelona midfielder Miralem Pjanic touched down in Dubai to sign an initial two-year contract with Sharjah.
A long-established Bosnia and Herzegovina international, Pjanic is a winner of four Serie A titles and a Uefa Champions League finalist. Two years ago, he traded Juventus for Barcelona for a reported €60 million. Apparently, manager Xavi wanted to retain him now, only for Pjanic, 32, to leave on a free transfer.
Granted, the midfielder's time at the Nou Camp did not play out as expected; he referenced as much on Wednesday in a heartfelt social-media tribute to his former employers.
Pjanic made only 30 appearances at Barca, all of which came during that first season. Last year, when one of European football’s true superpowers struggled on and off the pitch, he was loaned to Turkey’s Besiktas. There, he did not quite hit the heights anticipated either, even if he did lift the Turkish Super Cup.
However, Pjanic represents both a considerable coup for Sharjah and for UAE football, for sure. It can be billed as another very recent example that the Adnoc Pro League's pull is, perhaps slowly and most certainly following a lengthy fallow, returning.
Without doubt, it is some time since a player of Pjanic’s pedigree opted to ply their trade in the Emirates. Fabio Cannavaro in 2010. David Trezequet the following year. Luca Toni 12 months after that. Mirko Vucinic in 2014.
In truth, Asamoah Gyan built the baulk of his club career at Al Ain from 2011-2015. Hugo Viana, meanwhile, spent his final three years as a pro in the UAE from 2013.
As for other notable names? Ryan Babel, Nilmar and Jo, all around 2015. Later, Lassana Diarra and Yohan Cabaye. All were recognised prior to their arrival in the Emirates, but none sat quite in Pjanic’s bracket. Alvaro Negredo? Maybe close.
Vucinic trod a similar trail to Pjanic, arcing from Roma to sustained success at Juventus before landing at Al Jazira. His class quickly told: he scored 27 times in 24 matches to finish his debut campaign as the league’s lead marksman. Yet injury soon curtailed his contribution.
Pjanic, who had fitness issues at Besiktas, will hope, obviously, for a more prolonged impact. Sharjah, too.
Having invested heavily already in Alcacer, a former frontman at Valencia, Barca, Borussia Dortmund and Villarreal, they now house some of league’s standout expatriates (much is expected this season from Caio Lucas, a long-time UAE resident). Another spot remains open. Roger Guedes, the Corinthians forward, has been repeatedly linked.
At the helm, in Cosmin Olaroiu, Sharjah boast arguably the division’s foremost tactician and certainly its most decorated domestically. Runners-up to Al Ain last season – Olaroiu was appointed mid-campaign, in November – the 2018/19 champions have designs, clearly, on going one better.
The signing of Pjanic proves this. It props up that purpose. The expectation will be that the vastly experienced star, with the league titles and genuine big-game know-how, can raise standards not only on the pitch, but in the dressing room as well.
Of course, and irrespective of the back catalogue, time and patience will be required. Yes, Pjanic is installed immediately among the most talented technicians in the league, but he will surely need to adapt to a new league and culture. Weather-wise, September can be an unforgiving month.
Tellingly, few of the aforementioned foreign imports to UAE football left a truly lasting impression. Patently, there is always risk involved.
Still, the signing of Pjanic promises much, adding a layer of legitimacy to a league that feels set to enjoy its best season for some time.