Etisalat Cup is more than just consolation

As we confront four more rounds of the Etisalat Cup over the next 22 days, this seems like a good time for UAE football supporters to decide how they feel about it.

As we confront four more rounds of the Emirates Etisalat Cup over the next 22 days, this seems like a good time for UAE football supporters to decide how they feel about it.

Is the Etisalat Cup a fascinating twist on the Pro League season? A sort of second-chance competition for clubs already drifting far south in the table?

Does it shape up as more of a dash for cash? An opportunity for one club to claim a reward that was Dh2 million last season - and expected to be more this time round?

Or is it merely a glorified "place-holder" in a particularly saturated 2010/11 international football calendar? The football we are stuck with until the Pro League returns, December 12-13.

We know this is not the hoariest of domestic competitions. This is year three for the Etisalat Cup, and if you remember who won the first two (Al Ain and Al Jazira), consider yourself an aficionado of domestic football.

Our clubs are not much help in figuring out What This All Means. In round two, last week, some clubs (Al Ahli, for example) approached the Etisalat Cup as if it were a matter of the highest urgency. While others (like Jazira and Al Wahda) seemed to treat it as if it were a televised pick-up game.

Ahli rolled out nearly all of their first team for the cup match with Sharjah, including Fabio Cannavaro, Pinga, Aristide Bance, Ahmed Khamis and Obaid al Taweela.

Jazira, meanwhile, named a team that was missing Ibrahim Diaky, Subait Khater, Matias Delgado, Toni and Bare; and Wahda played without attacking stalwarts Fernando Baiano or Ismail Matar.

Local clubs are also missing the 22 young Emirati standouts in China at the Asian Games with the Olympic team. Wahda and Baniyas are hard hit by the Olympic-team absences, and Jazira are not far behind.

In the case of Ahli, their commitment to the game in Sharjah could be cynically interpreted as ramping up their efforts to win something in the first season of Cannavaro and the coach David O'Leary, a pair of expensive imports. While Wahda and Jazira, for example, were content to give the second string a try while they focus on the Club World Cup and Pro League, respectively.

To recapitulate: the Etisalat Cup organises the 12 Pro League clubs into two groups of six. Each club plays the other five in their group home and away, making for 10 rounds of games, or nearly two-and-a-half months of competition. The top two teams from each group play in the semi-finals, and the survivors go to the final.

The competition has never been so extended. It would be pretty to think that the longer tournament is because it seems better that way but, yes, it was created to cover several yawning gaps in the Pro League schedule resulting from national team commitments.

To wit: the Asian Games (November 6-28), the Gulf Cup (Yemen, November 22 until December 4) and the Asian Cup (Qatar, January 7-29). The best Emiratis tend to play for the most competitive club sides, and football officials decided it would be unfair to ask those clubs to play key Pro League matches while the national players were doing their duty.

Which returns us to the Etisalat Cup. Yes, it is a do-over for clubs who have stumbled in the Pro League, which should please fans. Yes, it is a shot at another payday, which should please clubs and players.

But most of all it answers our need for competitive football when the option might have been a football-less November, and that should please us all.

The weather is nice. What better time to spend a few hours with friends in the stands? To cheer on your team's regulars - as well as another five guys you may never have seen before.