Leading football clubs around the world are the vehicles through which money is transported from the pockets of supporters to the bank accounts of players - not so in the UAE, where clubs have survived almost exclusively on the largesse of wealthy owners. Altering this is going to take some time, according to Carlo Nohra, the new chief executive of the UAE Pro League. "We can't just go and buy ourselves a solution from Spinneys," he says. "It is going to take some time. We need to be realistic about what can be achieved."
To give one illustratuon, at a press conference to announce the news that Toshiba is to sponsor the Dubai football club Al Ahli, a supporter tried to walk off with the No 10 shirt belonging to its star striker, Ahmed Khalil. He might have been forgiven for believing there were plenty more where that came from in the club merchandise store, but not so. "We need that for tomorrow's game," a flustered club official countered as he tried to wrest back possession of the shirt.
It was evidence, if any more was needed, that investment in a UAE Pro League club can, at present, lead to losing more than just a shirt. After Al Ahli's signing of the former Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro, Toshiba, the Japanese multi-national, committed itself to a three-year shirt sponsorship deal worth Dh11m a season. But such multimillion-dirham sponsorship deals within the league are few and far between.
"The paying public" has been an alien concept in a country where admission fees have traditionally been compliments of the board of directors and matches are shown on free-to-air television. Mr Nohra is the man tasked with leading the move towards a greater standard of professionalism. Essentially, he is telling local football fans that they will have to pay for something they have always regarded as their given right.
"When I say it will take 30 years [to change the league], people will fall off their chairs," he said. "It will take that long because it is a project that is purely about social policies, about changing attitudes. "What we can't do is just sit back and not do anything, or just give up on trying. We need to make the hard decisions. It is hard in a country where tradition prevails and it is not easy to affect change."
But it must happen, he said, because the numbers do not add up. It is safe to assume the wage bill of the playing and coaching staff comfortably exceeds the revenue of at least nine of the 12 Pro League clubs - if not all of them. According to estimates by well-placed sources, UAE national team players command a basic wage in excess of Dh1 million a year at their clubs. Emerging Emirati players are likely to be paid Dh360,000 to 480,000 a year.
Each Pro League team is allowed up to three foreign players, who can earn as much as the Dh22.5m Al Ahli could pay Fabio Cannavaro this season, or the estimated Dh20m Al Jazira paid Ricardo Oliveira last season. Financial rewards are also relative to success. Each of Al Wahda's players was awarded a Dh300,000 bonus for winning the league last season, according to the national press agency WAM. The most ambitious clubs also pay coaches well. David O'Leary, the most high-profile manager working in the UAE, admitted that it required "a very good package" to tempt him out of a four-year management hiatus to join Al Ahli this summer. And that from a coach who is used to the extremely high wages of the English Premier League. It is believed that an annual salary of Dh3m for a foreign coach is commonplace.
Thus, the cost of paying 22 Emiratis and three foreigners on a standard, 25-player squad list, as well as compensating the manager, could easily push the most basic of annual operating costs for the league's more ambitious teams to more than Dh40m. Revenues, however, are another matter. Al Wahda earned 16 per cent of the league's central revenue pot, a sum of unknown dimensions, for winning the title last season, compared with the three per cent that went to the last-placed club.
Other than handouts from the league, almost all costs are met by the owners or board members. The clubs take in little or no revenue from ticket sales, and, until last year, corporate sponsorships were nearly non-existent. As unsustainable business models go, it is just about perfect. A 30-year plan might be the minimum just to make clubs self-sufficient, let alone get the Pro League on to a level with the continent's top leagues, which is Mr Nohra's intention.
The league's governing body knows it can lead the clubs to water but it cannot force them to drink. However, there are signs that some are beginning to heed the advice. Signing a player of Cannavaro's stature used to be the ultimate vanity project for a UAE club owner, a way of saying: "I've got lots of cash, look at what I can do with it." Now, however, professionalism has brought a bankable value to signing headline acts like the former Italy captain.
With its latest shirt sponsorship, Al Ahli, Cannavaro's new club, is in the process of a move towards financial self-sufficiency. Its aim is to become the "People's Club" of the UAE. Paying one player Dh22.5m per season may seem a strange way of going about it, but the club is starting to see benefits of the outlay. For example, Al Ahli attracted 6,600 spectators for the Italian's home debut. That is an increase of 4,000 on the official figure for the average attendance at Pro League matches last season.
But even that does not help the club at present - Al Ahli's directors are underwriting the cost of tickets again this season, as has been normal, meaning general admission to matches is free. Al Ahli say it will announce a variety of other commercial link-ups in the coming weeks, many of which have come about as a result of Cannavaro's presence. "Our deal with Toshiba is for three years, and that is the time-frame we are working with to develop our business strategy," Ahmed Khalifa Hammad, Al Ahli's chief executive, said.
"By the end of that, we want to reach the best level in the UAE, at least, if not the region. We want to create a football business model which will be copied by other clubs." The Abu Dhabi club Al Jazira, has also made a rapid move in its commercial department since the arrival of a new forward-thinking chief executive, Phil Anderton, at the start of this year. Last week the club signed a deal in which Barclays became its financial services partners, which is said to be worth as much as Dh25m over the next two years.
At the end of the 1980s, English football clubs started to realise there was a ready market for replica shirts. More than 20 years on, the penny is starting to drop in the UAE. After signing its star Italian, Al Ahli could have made a killing on sales of Cannavaro shirts, adorned with the famous No 23, which was also the number of choice for the likes of David Beckham and Michael Jordan. But the only replicas available at present are unofficial ones on sale in Karama, though clubs hope to begin selling official merchandise later this season.
Then, perhaps, Al Ahli will not be so protective of its striker's red No 10 shirt. firstname.lastname@example.org