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My UAE Team and Finally Getting a Second Championship

May 1st, 2017 · No Comments · Abu Dhabi, Arabian Gulf League, Football, The National, World Cup

I settled on Al Jazira as my favorite soccer team, in my six-plus years in Abu Dhabi. In large part because the club was about 200 yards from where I lived and about 300 yards from where I worked.

A club considered one of the biggest in the nation was awfully handy to me; I could see the stadium’s lights by stepping outside.

If I happened to pass by, while they were playing, I could display my media credential and drop on in. I did that more than once.

Jazira also was pretty good. My first season in-country, the self-declared Pride of Abu Dhabi finished runner-up to the city’s other club, Al Wahda, marking Jazira’s fourth consecutive season finishing second.

In 2011, they finally broke through to win their first league title, also winning the President’s Cup.

But that was it for the Pride of Abu Dhabi for five years, chasing tradition-steeped Al Ain and free-spending Al Ahli of Dubai.

Until this weekend, when Jazira crushed little Hatta 5-0 to clinch Arabian Gulf League championship No. 2.

Finally.

I have been following, from a distance, and I was glad to see five or six familiar names in the clinching victory.

I knew the 2011 team well because I interviewed so many of them, including the hulking Brazilian forward Jader Volnei Spindler, who answered to “Bare” — a cheap cola-like soft drink in South America that he drank in large quantities.

The athletic forward on that club was Ricardo Oliveira, formerly of Valencia, Milan and Zaragoza, and also a Brazilian. The playmaker was Matias Delgado, formerly of Basel and Besiktas, who also could score.

That club won a league-President’s Cup double and looked as if it was set up to be good for years, but Jazira struggled to remain relevant as Al Ain and Ahli took control of things for five seasons.

Jazira leaked important players during the years of not quite winning, which was a bit embarrassing for a club run by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, who also owns Manchester City of the Premier League and New York City of Major League Soccer.

This time, Jazira left no doubt. With two matches to play, Jazira hasĀ  won 20, lost two and tied two, and if it wins those last two it will become the first UAE club to win 22 matches in a league season.

Jazira has been the league’s best at both ends of the pitch, scoring 67, and conceding only 15.

Henk ten Cate, a native of the Netherlands, first coached in the UAE in 2010, when he had a disastrous one month with Ahli and quit before he could be fired.

With Jazira ten Cate fostered a bonhomie in the side that appears genuine. It also helps that he has Ali Mabkhout on his roster; the Emirati leads the league in scoring with 31 goals, and any UAE team with an Emirati scorer has a leg up because that means the four foreigners allowed, per team, don’t have to include two forwards.

As my former colleague John McAuley noted, Jazira benefited in some other ways, too.

Its leading competitors, Ahli and Al Ain each have given a lot of attention to the Asian Champions League; both qualified for the knockout stages of the competition. Those two clubs also are home to most of the UAE national team, which has been focused on the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Jazira, meanwhile, qualified for the Asian Champions League but showed no real interest in advancing in it, and Jazira’s roster was hardly touched by World Cup qualifying; only Mabkhout was sure to be called up and to play.

So, good for Jazira. I imagine they will have a big party at the enormous (and rarely filled) Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium after their final home match, on May 13.

Despite being one of the country’s biggest clubs, Jazira fans know not to expect championships with any sort of Bayern Munich-style frequency. When Jazira wins, fans need to revel in it.

 

 

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