Valdivia dream may be dead, but feisty Fujairah showed they could think big

Paul Oberjuerge explores the question, 'How did Fujairah ... come so close to a coup of global dimensions, only to see it dissolve in the space of 48 hours?'

Jorge Valdivia played two seasons with Al Ain in the UAE. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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For one giddy week, it was an astonishing story: the smallest club in the domestic top flight, about to capture a player many still consider the most skilled ever to turn out for a UAE side.

For days, the question was: how could this happen? How could little Fujairah have swooped to land Jorge Valdivia, Chilean international sometimes known as “The Magician”, whose name even now can put a smile on the face of Al Ain supporters?

And now, the question is: where did it go wrong? How did Fujairah, newly promoted, come so close to a coup of global dimensions, only to see it dissolve in the space of 48 hours?

It was Thursday last week that Valdivia travelled to Fujairah to meet officials there. To have his photo taken shaking hands. To pose with a Fujairah scarf around his neck. For Fujairah to post on their Twitter account a Fujairah shirt, No 10, with Valdivia's name on it. To meet with local reporters.

Valdivia to Fujairah. It was happening.

The Arabian Gulf League was agog. What Fujairah were doing was bold, breathtaking, beautiful. It was becoming one of the great recruiting stories in UAE football history. Bigger than Al Ahli’s capture of Fabio Cannavaro the same summer he captained Italy at the 2010 World Cup. Bigger than Al Jazira’s still-record Dh72.5 million spend to bring in Ricardo Oliveira, formerly of AC Milan and Valencia.

Valdivia might be enough to help Fujairah reach their stated goal – to stay up. In combination with other players, he might have been enough to finish in mid-table.

If it seemed to good to be true, it was.

History seems to suggest Valdivia is not the most dependable player in world football, and despite making the trip to Fujairah, he did not sign a contract. For a few days, however, club officials seemed convinced he would return.

The explanation of his Fujairah fling was often posited in these terms: he remembered fondly his two seasons, 2008/09 and 2009/10 with Al Ain, who by some accounts offered him a “lifetime” contract, and thought a return to the UAE would be painless; he had been kidnapped briefly in Sao Paulo in 2012, and the UAE is famously safe; at age 30, he was not old, but perhaps he sought a situation where something short of a weekly peak performance would still bring results; and the money, an oft-repeated US$7.5 million for three years, was nice.

However, the day after he posed with the scarf, he was on a plane back to Brazil, where he has played the past four years for Palmeiras. At first, the word was his wife had fallen ill. But a photo of her at a party turned up the next day on social media. Alarm bells began to go off.

Valdivia’s agent, Wagner Ribeiro, also the agent for Neymar, became hard to find. As late as Monday, Fujairah officials still seemed to believe Valdivia would return. By Tuesday, they no longer were answering their phones. On Wednesday, they tweeted that the move was dead.

What happened? Perhaps Valdivia’s arrival in Fujairah, a small team in what is considered, globally, a small league, galvanised big clubs in big leagues into making offers. Valdivia is available? Let’s get in on that. Maybe Valdivia right now is now sitting with his agent and weighing those offers for more money, for a more prominent side, in a big city.

It does not mean the end of Fujairah’s dream of staying up, for the first time in this century, at their third attempt.

A competitive side can still be constructed. They have Boubacar Sanogo, the Ivorian striker, in the fold. They have the Lebanese midfielder Hassan Maatouk on the books. They have brought in Subait Khater, the former Jazira and Al Ain playmaker as well as UAE captain, to play in midfield. They are pursuing Nawaf Mubarak, the Baniyas midfielder.

The dream of Valdivia is dead, but the revelation of a feisty Fujairah club willing to think big, take chances and shake up the AGL lives on.

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