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When Three Soccer Clubs Disappear in a Day

May 17th, 2017 · No Comments · Arabian Gulf League, Dubai, Fifa, Football, soccer, UAE

The most authentic sports experience in the United Arab Emirates is anything pertaining to the domestic soccer league — the Arabian Gulf League.

It is a league overseen by Emiratis, largely staffed by Emiratis, featuring clubs overwhelmingly made up of Emirati footballers, and the whole of the league is largely watched by Emiratis, whether on television or in person.

Any other team sport pursued in the UAE, from cricket to rugby to cycling … it’s a foreign game by and for foreigners and has limited (actually, close-to-zero) Emirati participation or interest. Their three favorite sports are 1) domestic soccer, 2) national-team soccer and 3) international soccer.

So, it was a shock when two government-ordered mergers yesterday wiped out three clubs.

The first merger came in Dubai, where the emir, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, mandated that regional power Al Ahli merge with Al Shabab, thrice a league champion, and Dubai Club.

Even the football people were surprised by this one; Shabab had to cancel a 5 p.m. press conference introducing its new coach. Also, Dubai had recently won promotion from the UAE’s second division, so what would have been three sides in next year’s league … is now only one. Who will play on the one team, who will coach it, where the one club will play … unknown.

Apparently, its name will be … Shabab Al Ahli Dubai, which is a mouthful.

Dubai will still have three league sides in the city, the others being Al Nasr and Al Wasl, but until yesterday it had five, and four of them were considered among the nation’s seven or eight “big” clubs.

Later in the day, the emir of Sharjah, the country’s third-biggest emirate, announced that Sharjah Club would merge with crosstown rival Al Shaab and be called “Sharjah Cultural Club”. Shaab had not been strong in recent years, but it had won a President’s Cup and been in the final of two others. At the time of the merge, Shaab was playing in the second division.

These twin shocks led to Arabian Gulf League officials calling an emergency meeting to figure out what to do next, and the short-term answer is to go with a 12-club league next year, down from the 14 of recent seasons, which probably will cost them the No. 2 ranking among leagues in the Asian Football Confederation.

Why did this happen?

One of the tweets announcing the Dubai merger suggested it would enable the consolidated club to become a major force. Sheikh Mohammed reportedly wrote: “Our objective is to build a club that can compete regionally and globally.”

How that might work is not clear. Asian clubs can aspire to the AFC Champions League, but pre-merger Ahli was already on its way all by itself — having finished as runner-up in 2015. Ahli, which has more national-team players than any other UAE side, is in the knockout stages of the Champions League again this season.

Competing “globally” could happen only if the new club won the Champions League, then went to the Fifa Club World Cup and beat the champion of North America or Africa — or, better yet, of Europe or South America.

Money could be an issue.

There have been instances of UAE clubs not paying their players promptly and running up debts. In part, this was a function of the curious system in which local government subsidized every club.

Emirati clubs have never operated in a traditional business sense; clubs spend a lot of money and take in very little. (Typically, no admission is charged to a match.) If the money from the government is late in arriving, well, everyone has to wait.

Also, it should be noted that Shabab, Dubai and Shaab were not well-supported, standing out in a league that rarely gets many people into the stands. Shabab often was one of the league’s best sides, but its fan-base was tiny. Shaab’s best was in the past; Dubai had never won a trophy.

It is encouraging that none of the little clubs in the interior, which mostly play in the second tier, have not been hit. The likes of Hatta (Dubai), Kalba (Sharjah) and Dibba (Fujairah). Perhaps because they spend less money. Perhaps because the government recognizes that the local sports club is important in isolated communities.

The UAE has seen better economic times. Oil prices have been down for three years now, and tourism has faltered in Dubai, particularly, because of the strong dirham, pegged to the U.S. dollar.

Hard to imagine, though, that Dubai’s government will save any significant money by making one soccer team out of three.

It will be interesting to see how this works out.

In recent years, the UAE’s league has been one of the best in Asia; currently it ranks behind only South Korea and ahead of well-developed soccer leagues in Japan, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar …

Is this the start of a retreat from those standards? Fans of the AGL, and I am one, hope not. I’d like the chance to show up in Dubai and see a local club play, surrounded by locals in national dress getting close to the only sport that matters to them.



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