The Arabian Gulf League is back, but what can we expect from the season ahead?
The bright lights of the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League are popular on these shores, but the national league of the UAE is also growing in stature and improving year on year.
The UAE Arabian Gulf League is the beating heart of football in the UAE and has welcomed top imported talent over the years, including Abedi Pele and Asamoah Gyan. But the league boasts more than fleeting appearances of foreign flair.
While the UAE national side has been unable to reach a major tournament since the FIFA World Cup in 1990, the rebuilding of the domestic league and football structure has helped to rejuvenate the sport’s culture and support local talent as the country establishes itself as a leading footballing nation in the region.
Founded in 1973, the UAE Arabian Gulf League is the top professional football division in the UAE, and features 12 clubs from across all seven emirates.
Despite its name, this is a domestic competition featuring only clubs from the Emirates, and shouldn’t be confused with the AFC Champions League, which pits clubs from Asia and the Middle East against one another.
Al Ain FC hold the record for the most league titles with 12 to their name, followed by Al-Alhi and Al-Wasl, who each have seven league titles.
The reigning champions are Abu Dhabi’s Al Jazira Club, who secured their second-ever domestic league trophy last year, beating Al-Wasl to the title by eleven points.
The 2017 season is shaping up to be an exciting one as the league is taking on a new schedule and a new structure. This year’s league is due to wrap up two weeks early at the end of April, with the FIFA World Cup in Russia set to be held in the summer, where the UAE hopes to be participating.
The number of teams competing in the league has also been reduced to 12 from 14, following the mergers of Al Ahli, Al Shabab and Dubai club, and Sharjah and Al Shaab. The two new clubs will now compete under the names Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club and Sharjah Cultural Club, respectively.
The first round of matches will take place on 15th and 16th September, with all participating teams beginning the domestic season.
Each team will play the other eleven sides in both home and away matches in a bid to earn points for wins and draws. The team with the most points will be named champions while the bottom team will be relegated to the UAE First Division.
The teams will also contest two domestic cup competitions: the UAE President’s Cup and the UAE League Cup.
Each team that competes in the UAE Arabian Gulf League is allowed four foreign players to be registered as part of their squad; this allows clubs to grow domestic talent and improve their academies to give the best Emirati footballers the opportunity to play professionally.
Representing the capital
This year, four teams will be representing Abu Dhabi, including reigning champions, Al Jazira Club.
So what can we expect from our hometown teams this year and who’s in contention for the title?
Al Jazira Club
Aiming to build on a title-winning season last year, Al Jazira will be looking to Emirati striker Ali Mabkhout to continue his purple patch after the 26-year-old enjoyed his most prolific season at the club ever last year, scoring 33 league goals. Bolstering the ranks, the arrival of former Real Madrid and Arsenal midfielder Lassana Diarra in April will improve the midfield. The Frenchman is joined by Brazilian attacker Romarinho, as well as Uzbek forward Sardor Rashidov, who both signed on in the summer. Moroccan winger Mbark Boussoufa completes the club’s foreign allocation. Expected to follow on from their success last year, the club will be aiming for a third league title but will no doubt face stiff competition.
Al Ain FC
The UAE’s most successful team have kept hold of their prized asset, club captain Omar Abdulrahman, and have added a threat in attack by securing the signing of Swedish striker Marcus Berg, who joined from Panathinaikos. The club also secured the signing of Japanese defender Tsukasa Shiotani who joined from J-League side Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Making up the rest of the foreign player allocation are Brazilian footballers Douglas and Caio. Expected to improve from their fourth-place finish last year, Al Ain FC will be among the contenders for the title and will be favourites to lift a record 18th league title in May.
Al Wahda FC
Four-time champions Al Wahda finished the 2016-2017 season in fifth place, the lowest league finish since the 2012-2013 season when the club finished seventh. Looking to place themselves among the contenders this year, the club has signed Moroccan forward Mourad Batna to strengthen their attack. After an impressive debut season last year, Hungarian midfielder Balázs Dzsudzsák should be the star man for the club this year, alongside Argentinian striker Sebastián Tagliabué and South Korean defender Rim Chang-woo. The club may not be able to top the table come April, but they’ll undoubtedly be fighting for glory as the season develops.
Al Dhafra FC
Al Dhafra finished the 2016-2017 season with an impressive seventh-place finish, and it will be hard for the club to improve on a mid-table finish this campaign. Bolstering their attack, Brazilian striker Aílton José Almeida has joined the club from champions Al Jazira and should bring some experience to the team. Helping to stop opposition goals from flowing in, Moroccan defensive midfielders Issam El Adoua and Adil Hermach will help lead the way from the middle of the park. It will be a challenging season for the club, which is based in Madinat Zayed, and avoiding relegation and finishing mid-table will be a respectable achievement when the league season draws to a close.
FOR THE FANS
Where to watch: Games are shown on OSN and Abu Dhabi Sports so you can see the action from the comfort of your home. Contact your content provider for details.
Going to the game: Tickets are available at the gate on match days from AED 10 to AED 20. Online tickets will soon be available on the AGL website and third-party ticketing outlets.
For more information on fixtures and results, visit: uae.agleague.ae
WORDS Colin Armstrong