It’s Friday, May 14, 2010. The drums that have echoed around Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium all evening are suddenly subdued. Home side Al Jazira seem to have run out of steam with only minutes of the season to go. For the third time, it seems as if they’ll slump to second place ignominy on the last day of the season – only a win will secure the title.
It looks like it’s ending as a 2-2 draw when the ball falls to Ricardo Oliveira. The Brazilian national, who arrived in the UAE 10 months earlier for Dhs73million, is deep in the opposition’s half. He begins his run slowly, cautiously, knocking aside tackle after tackle, avoiding ferocious lunges as he closes in on goal. He’s not known to miss from this range. Al Jazira fans gasp deep in unison – they’ve been holding their breath for more than 30 years…
OK, it’s a moon-eyed prediction, but fans of the UAE Football League – the UFL – will recognise similarities. Far from being the lowly spectacle fans of European football imagine, the UFL attracts passionate support across eight cities in five emirates, so much so that the capital’s streets have been known to suffer gridlock as kickoff approaches..
That the sport draws such support should not really be surprising. The league is consistently competitive; during the last five years, no team has won by more than five points, with an average of 3.12 goals per game recorded last season (compared with 2.76 in the Premier League and 2.6 in Serie A). Since many of the teams play in, shall we say, less glamorous settings than Dubai or the capital, the almost tribal support for the game is understandable. It may sound trite, but if you’re out in Ras Al Khaimah or Madinat Zayed, football is a way of life. Painted faces yell from the stands, and band-led chants sound long into the night.
While the league tries its best to promote Emirati talent, foreign stars inevitably grab the headlines, and big names in the past have done little to assuage the notion that the UFL is a players’ graveyard. Phillip Cocu and George Weah called time on their careers while signed to Al Jazira, both at the age of 37. It’s an unfortunate misconception, however. The money may be here to attract has-beens, but the coaches don’t necessarily want them. Tellingly, the average age of foreign players at Cocu’s former club this season will be 26.
Invariably, the coaches have chosen to bring names in from Brazil and Africa, but in recent years the local players have been making a name for themselves. Often the subject of foreign transfer speculation is the 26-year-old striker Ismail Matar, currently plying his trade at Al Wahda. Voted best player in the Fifa World Youth Championship 2003, he achieved legendary status among UAE fans when he secured victory for his nation at the Gulf Cup Of Nations in 2007 (his contribution also saw him win the tournament’s Golden Boot). Observers are also keen on the talents of Yousef Abdulrahman, a regular between the posts of the national squad, and Al Ain’s first choice keeper.
The season kicks off on September 25, when 12 teams play the first of 22 rounds, simultaneously looking for honours in the Etisalat Cup, the Presidents Cup and the Super Cup (played on September 22 between Al Ahli and Al Ain). While you might find it difficult to drag yourself away from Showtime’s Premier League screenings, real live action is well within your reach. Make this season count. Your club needs you.
Know your UFL
• The majority of the games will take place on Fridays and Saturdays, kicking off at either 6pm or 8.45pm (unless prayer times dictate otherwise)
• Tickets, available at the stadiums, cost Dhs20 for cheaper seats, Dhs50-80 for the main stand
• Teams are allowed four foreign players, one of whom must be Asian. A maximum of three are allowed on the pitch at any one time
• While banners featuring pictures are welcome, those featuring slogans are strictly forbidden
Who are ya?
Four at the top of the table, four in the middle, and four struggling at the bottom. Who’s vying with who in the UFL?
Al Ahli (Dubai)
Last season: 1st
This season’s prediction: 3rd
Al Ahli won the UFL last season, and will be hoping to repeat the golden years of 1975-76. New Romanian coach Ioan Andone is charged with masterminding the feat, and he’ll be keen to get the best out of Brazil-born Baré, who arrived in July 2008 from Gamba Osaka, where he was the top scorer in the J-league.
Last season: 3rd
This season’s prediction: 2nd
Al Ain hold nine domestic titles and were the winners of the AFC Champions League in 2003. The coach has recently added free-scoring Argentinean José Sand to his front line. A local expat told us, ‘This is the place you want to come if you want to feel the passion of a European game.’ As an Inter supporter, we reckon he knows what he’s talking about.
Last season: 9th
This season’s prediction: 8th
‘The Orange Brigade’ may be the smallest club in the league, but they’re eager and feisty and have a vocal band of supporters. They’ve bolstered their squad with Tarik Sektioui (formerly with Porto) and retained the services of want-away Javad Kazemian.
Bani Yas (Al Ain)
Last season: Promoted
This season’s prediction: 12th
Without a local stadium, Bani Yas will battle it out in Al Ain. Freshly promoted, they’ve signed Senegalese youngster André Senghor to give some pace to the front line, but they’ll need to lift their game if they want to stay up.
Al Dhafra (madinat Zayed)
Last season: 8th
This season’s prediction: 7th
The team is more heavily UAE national than any other in the league, and the supporters are among the most, er… mental. Last season saw improvement on previous years. We expect more of the same.
Emirates (ras al khaimah)
Last season: Promoted
This season’s prediction: 10th
The coach has filled his minnow squad with Iranian nationals – no less than four recruited this summer. There’s feverish support for the men in green, which makes for a great evening in the stands, but we can’t see them rising above the lower third.
Al Jazira (abu dhabi)
Last season: 2nd
This season’s prediction: 1st
Al Jazira have finished in second place no less than seven times, losing two league titles on the final day. With a flashy Brazilian manager (Abel Braga), four national team regulars and the most costly player in the league’s history (Ricardo Oliveira), they’re rightly considered the nation’s glamour club. They’ve waited 35 seasons to celebrate. This could be their year.
Al Nasr (dubai)
Last season: 6th
This season’s prediction: 5th
Founded in 1945, Al Nasr is the oldest club in the country. It’s also thought of as the Everton of the region – flash Harries have no place here. The real talking point this summer has been the arrival of no less than 12 new players, Dutch-Moroccan midfielder Anouar Diba being among the most promising.
Al Shabab (dubai)
Last season: 5th
This season’s prediction: 6th
This season’s big signing is Carlos Villanueva, inasmuch as he played 16 games on loan at Blackburn last season. Brazilian coach Toninho Cerezo is charged with returning this wayward club to league-winning glory (they last won in 2008), but last season’s slump suggests there’s quite a bit of work to be done.
Last season: 10th
This season’s prediction: 11th
The first club to win the league back in 1974, Sharjah are now the FA’s problem child after withdrawing from the AFC Champions League last season. They haven’t won a league in well over a decade. Many of their foreign players seem to have gone AWOL during the summer. Expect small things.
Al Wahda (abu dhabi)
Last season: 4th
This season’s prediction: 4th
Coach Josef Hickersberger pulled off a coup by signing Al Jazira mainstay Fernando Baiano, last season’s league top scorer, and captain Bashir Saeed is a UAE national legend with 52 caps to his name. ‘The people’s club of Abu Dhabi’ are a well-supported outfit, and may be the main reason for weekend traffic congestion in the capital as kickoff approaches. If you can’t beat ’em… you ought to buy a season ticket.
Al Wasl (dubai)
Last season: 7th
This season’s prediction: 9th
The Liverpool FC of the UAE, Al Wasl almost single-handedly stole the ’80s with four league titles. Their most recent league win came in 2007, following which they’ve been in steady decline. With few new arrivals, the rot may be too great to overcome. Douglas Dos Santos, signed from Brazilian league winners Corinthians, is their new big name, though he has a lot to prove – being a friend of Ronaldo’s may not be enough.