When the most capped Italian player ever, Fabio Cannavaro, signed for Al Ahli to see out his playing days, it was to the sound of much hype. A player of his standard and ability playing here in the UAE was deemed a great step for the league. Sadly, the story goes, Cannavaro didn’t take the usual test when he signed for the club – presumably so excited were Al Ahli to get their hands on such a player. Six months into a two-year deal, poor old Fabio’s knee gave way and that was the end of that. Stories such as this one may lead you to think UAE clubs shouldn’t be wasting their time on aging players who either can’t or won’t perform to their best levels. More recently, it seems the league took note – it wasn’t so long ago that Michael Owen was rumoured to be joining Al Shabab, only for the club to resist, knowing of Owen’s past issues with injury.
However, not all older players are tarnished. Australia’s Lucas Neill is a prime example. Now approaching his mid-thirties, the ex West Ham and Everton defender is going strong in the UAE. He spent last year doing a very decent job at Al Jazira, winning the President’s Cup with the Abu Dhabi club. Having since been released, Al Wasl have signed him up, and what a very wise choice they’ve made. He is still the captain of Australia, and having made 38 appearances in all competitions last year, is still more than capable of playing week in, week out.
For the one year Al Wasl have signed Neill, he will be a dependable defender. If the UAE league can continue to attract players such as Neill, who are nearing retirement but can still perform, they may wish to re-market the league as something of a ‘masters’ series’. A little bit of a dream, but imagine a league made up of ex-pros. The likes of Drogba, Fowler and Shearer playing each week. I bet it would be a league the UAE – not to mention the world – would want to watch. I for one hope Lucas Neill has another strong year, and I’m very glad to see him settled into UAE life, and still finding the Pro League a place that fits his needs.
Tom Bushell guests on The Grill (Sat 5pm, Dubai Eye) and hosts Dubai 92’s Tom & Dan Show (Sun-Thu 4pm).