These are exciting times for football in the Middle East. Abu Dhabi has bequeathed British club Manchester City with unparalleled financial muscle, while Qatar is making an ambitious bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Not to be outdone, Dubai’s top domestic side, Al Ahli, has catapulted from relative obscurity to the back-page headlines after signing Italian World Cup 2006-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro.
Yet perhaps the most interesting arrival in Dubai is that of the club’s new manager, David O’Leary. After spending four years at English club Leeds United, whom he led to the semi-finals of the Champions’ League in 2001, O’Leary managed Aston Villa for three years before he was ousted in 2006. Since then, other than the occasional rumour linking him to one club or another, the Irishman spent four years in the footballing wilderness, only to re-emerge, rather surprisingly, in Dubai.
‘I never had any set plans,’ he explains. ‘The thing that intrigued me [about the Al Ahli job] was coming to a different culture. And I came for the president, Abdullah Saeed Al Naboodah. He sold me a “product” –
a product that I’d develop over three years – and said: “Can you take it on day one, and hand it back in three years as a really developed club?”’
O’Leary compares Al Naboodah’s vision for the club to another successful Dubai sporting venture – Godolphin. The Maktoum family’s renowned horse-racing stable, he points out, wasn’t built overnight, and is now a world-class facility. Still, it’s hard to believe that a manager who has guided a team to a Champions’ League semi-final could be enticed by the prospect of empty stadiums, a lack of local interest in the club and a standard of football that, to put it politely, is in its formative stages. ‘I’m not going to kid you,’ he says with a smile. ‘I was offered a very good package to come here. It’s a place I’ve always enjoyed, so I knew that living here wouldn’t be an issue.’
As for the low attendances, O’Leary knew what he was getting himself into and wasn’t the least bit surprised to walk out to an empty stadium for his managerial debut against Abu Dhabi club Al Dhafra. What did surprise him, however, was Al Ahli’s 2-0 defeat in the first game of the season. ‘Last week was a bit of a shock to me, I have to say. It was the first time I saw the players in a competitive [situation],’ he says.
O’Leary also attributes the poor performance to the fact that many of the Arabic players were suffering from the effects of fasting for Ramadan. ‘I’d have hated being an athlete and playing football and training during Ramadan. I find it a bit hard that the league wasn’t started after Ramadan. But I think it must be hard for all the teams, not just Al Ahli, to fast all day, then eat, then let that digest – [players are] starting training at 10pm, and then getting home late.
I can’t wait to get back to a more normal [routine]. But that is no excuse for the game. The best team won.’ Having only been in charge of the team for six weeks, O’Leary is still acquainting himself with many of the local players, one of whom needs no introduction. Yet he insists that Fabio Cannavaro, the man he made captain, doesn’t receive any preferential treatment. ‘I went to Leeds for a year after playing at Arsenal for 20 years, but all that I did for Arsenal counted for nothing at Leeds. I had to go and prove myself again. Fabio has come to Dubai and he’s got to prove himself again. His 20 years of being a great player count for nothing here.’
Well, it must count for something – Cannavaro was automatically appointed club captain, and is doubtless on an astronomical wage. But O’Leary is confident that Cannavaro will be kept on his toes by local players wanting to prove themselves. After all, Cannavaro was marshalling the defence that conceded two goals at the start of the season. And is Cannavaro the first of many European players to come to the UAE? For now, O’Leary is concentrating on getting the best out the players he has, but he concedes that some of his former players have expressed interest in coming to play here. Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate in Dubai? Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Al Ahli have since found their form, winning their first home game 4-1 against Al Wasl. The club play at the Rashid Stadium, opposite Dubai Police Headquarters on Al Nahda Road, Al Nahda 2 area (take the first right after Al Mullah Plaza on Etihad Road). On match days, there will be minibuses provided from GGICO metro station. Tickets for the first five home games are free. For fixtures and info about the UFL, see www.uaefootballleague.com