We almost gave up on Salem Khamis. The Emirati midfielder who regularly captains Dubai-based club Al Ahli has been frustratingly elusive. It can’t be helped – with Ramadan finishing only a day before the UAE Super Cup is played, inaugurating the 2009 season of the UAE’s professional football league, Khamis’s squad were forced to train post-iftar from 10pm every night of the week.
The Super Cup pits last season’s winners, Al Ahli, against the reigning champions of the UAE President Cup, Al Ain. It’s a vital game, one that hints at how the two teams – both of whom form the UFL’s (UAE Football League) Big Four, as it were – will fare in the season ahead.
So after several late night calls, stallings and possible cancellations, we finally manage to get a chat with Khamis who, despite training after fasting all day, sounds confident. ‘We’ve been preparing hard for this match,’ he tells us. ‘It’s the second time the Super Cup has [been played] so it’s not a new competition and is one that we’ve played before. Al Ahli is ready for it.’ Last year saw the first Super Cup, in which Al Ahli opened a winning season with a 1-0 victory over Dubai’s Al Shabab side.
The UFL games draw in vast crowds and it’s not unusual for the city to become gridlocked in the run-up to the big games. ‘Al Ain will be the big contender with us once the league starts this year,’ says Khamis. ‘It’s not easy to be champion of a league like this, you have to always be a solid team. All the clubs are ready.’
Local passion aside, the UFL is often given a sidelong glance by international football pundits, who assume that the quality and style of football is lacking. But since turning professional last year, the league has seen a real tightening up, with greater investment in clubs, more international interest and a gathering global presence in football. Brazilian-born Baré transferred to Al Ahli from Japan’s Gamba Osaka in the middle of last year. He’ll make his UAE debut this season and Khamis sounds hopeful that he will bring something definitive to the squad. ‘We are hoping to get Baré into a lot of games this season. We’re looking to have a better performance with him on the team.’
While the league might be gathering more attention, certain events are dragging the game back into the realms of non-pro, messy football. In August, Al Ahli made international press when they arrived in Surrey, England, to play a friendly match against the Chelsea Reserves team at the London-based team’s training ground. Reports are conflicting on what led to the game eventually being halted, a mere 35 minutes in, after a ‘mass brawl’ broke out on-pitch. Many place the blame on a poorly executed tackle (with some UK press referring to the foul as a ‘karate kick’) against Chelsea Reserves player Ben Gordon. Reports include hair pulling and eye gouging, and Gordon was left with a black eye after the game.
Khamis himself is strangely nonchalant about what happened: ‘I wasn’t playing in that game, because I was injured, but it could happen with any big team in the world. We’ve looked at the mistakes that happened there and are going to sort it out.’
Another, perhaps more bizarre issue that Al Ahli faced last year was when star striker Faisal Khalil, who has previously capped for the UAE, was embroiled in accusations of performing ‘black magic’ to maintain his position on the national squad. Arrested in September 2008 with two ‘Omani sorcerers’, the accusations have since been swept under the carpet. When we ask about this, Al Ahli’s representative is insistent that Khalil never went to jail for the incident, and both he and Khamis refuse to comment.
But for all these detractions, the UAE game is improving. There have been rumours that Czech legend and former Juventus player Pavel Nedved is considering coming out of retirement to join the Al Ahli squad: ‘Nothing’s confirmed as of yet, but I’d really like to play with a master player like Nedved. He will be an asset to the team,’ says Khamis. We ask if, as the captain, he looks back to the ‘Golden Period’ of Al Ahli in the late ’70s, with consecutive league wins in ’75 and ’76 and an apogee at the top of the league in 1980. ‘In the past four years we’ve won four or five titles and we are also hoping to gain another title this year,’ Khamis responds. ‘That’s how we’ll keep that ’70s game alive.’
The UAE Super Cup is on September 22 at Dubai Sports City, 8.30pm. Tickets available on the door. Price ranges from Dhs20 to Dhs120 for VIP seats. See www.alahliclub.ae/english for more info on Al Ahli