Pablo Zabaleta eyes Middle East career finale

Pablo Zabaleta's contract with West Ham ends next summer and he is pondering a move abroad, with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar all possibilities. (AFP)
Updated 02 November 2018
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Pablo Zabaleta eyes Middle East career finale

  • Pablo Zabaleta's contract with West Ham ends next summer
  • Zabaleta could emulate his former City boss Pep Guardiola who spent two seasons with Qatar side Al-Ahli at the end of his playing days

LONDON: Pablo Zabaleta’s first Gulf experience came 15 years ago.
It was the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in the UAE, a tournament that saw home hero Ismail Matar named best player as his side reached the quarterfinals, while Saudi Arabia just failed to qualify for the last 16.
Zabaleta, then 18, was in Argentina’s squad alongside Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, Spain had Andres Iniesta and eventual winners Brazil included Dani Alves.
Zabaleta recalled these moments when old club Manchester City became Abu Dhabi-owned in 2008. Over the past decade, his interest in the region has grown to the extent he is now looking to end his playing career there and take his first steps into coaching.
His two-year contract with West Ham ends next summer and he is pondering a move abroad, with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar all possibilities.
“My heart tells me I would like to play forever, but I will be 34 in January and I need to listen to my body at that time,” he told Arab News.
“At the end I will know what I want to do and where to go, but I would like one or two more years to carry on playing. At 34 I think it might be the right time to try something different, have a new experience.
“If I carry on playing in Europe, Italy is one of those leagues I haven’t played, but I have always been thinking about the Middle East. I first went to the UAE for the Under-20 World Cup in 2003 and have seen how much the region has changed.
“I’ve been to Saudi Arabia and Qatar with the national team and you see the fantastic progress, football standards improving and passion of fans.
“The League is not as long as in Europe, but there’s still the chance to play for trophies, to play big games competitively like in the Asian Champions League.
“I can’t see myself going to China; the Middle East and America are more attractive.
“I know the Middle East clubs have three or four spots for foreign players and they always try to bring attackers who have more influence on a game. But I’ve been playing in the top leagues and believe I can give experience, versatility and quality.”
At 21, Hammers team-mate and compatriot Manuel Lanzini became the youngest foreign player to play in the UAE Arabian Gulf League with one season at Al-Jazira before a dream Premier League move in 2015.
“I spoke to Manu about his experience and he said it was great,” added Zabaleta. “But the difference was he was only 21, then wanted to go to Europe and test himself further. He said the lifestyle was fantastic, you train late in the evenings because of the conditions. After England, this is what I’m looking for.
“You see Ahmed Musa was playing for Leicester, did well in the World Cup and had attractive offers from Europe, but went to Saudi Arabia with Al-Nassr. It was a surprise, but this is what can happen now. I have read Saudi Arabia are thinking about 2030, changing many things to make it better. Football and sport is important to this.”
Zabaleta could emulate his former City boss Pep Guardiola who spent two seasons with Qatar side Al-Ahli at the end of his playing days before going into a successful coaching career.
After nine years at the Etihad, the full-back would love to take charge one day as he added: “Why not? I spent nine years at Man City, it was like a home and my last meeting with (chairman) Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, he said the door will be open for me to come back to Man City in some role, so we will see. It would be special.
“I know Pep did this and went to Qatar after playing for Barcelona and then moved into coaching. It would be nice to do that.
“I have done my B license, next is the A license. In football you never know, but I’d like to keep involved, whether as a manager or off the field. I want to prepare myself by having those badges.
“I’m always watching football, talking about it. Whether it’s Spain, Italy, China or the Middle East. My phone is full of football apps.”
For now, though, Zabaleta is focused on keeping the Hammers in the top flight. Three points clear of the bottom three, they host Burnley tomorrow.
“I don’t want relegation,” he added. “We have to fight. After 11 years in England, I would like to leave the Premier League in a good way if I do go.”


Bert Van Marwijk only has one thing on his mind: getting the UAE to the 2022 World Cup

Updated 1 min 24 sec ago
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Bert Van Marwijk only has one thing on his mind: getting the UAE to the 2022 World Cup

  • Former Saudi Arabia coach wants to guide the Whites to their first World Cup since 1990.
  • "If I didn’t see the potential, I wouldn’t sit here," Dutchman says of his new job.

LONDON: Bert van Marwijk has told the UAE he only has one thing on his mind: Getting the side to the 2022 World Cup. 

The former Saudi Arabia boss was unveiled as the new coach of the Whites before watching his new team beat his former team 2-1 in a friendly in Dubai (see right). While he was in the stand rather than the dugout — interim boss Saleem Abdelrahman took charge — he would have liked what he saw as he set himself the challenge of leading the UAE to their first showpiece since 1990. 

“I’m here for only one thing, and that’s to qualify for the World Cup,” the Dutchman said.  

“It takes a long time and the first thing we have to deal with is the first qualification round. That’s why I’m here.”

Van Marwijk was celebrated after he led the Green Falcons to last year's World Cup before calling it quits. (AFP) 

Van Marwijk guided Saudi Arabia to last year’s World Cup — the Green Falcons’ first appearance at the showpiece for 12 years — during a two-year stint which ended in September 2017.

That was one of the key reasons the UAE fought hard for the 66-year-old and while it is never easy getting through Asian qualifying — 46 teams going for just four direct slots at Qatar 2022 — the Dutchman claimed his experience, combined with his knowledge of the UAE, will stand him in good stead. 

“The Saudis and the UAE are about the same level. With the Saudis we qualified for Russia, so we will do really everything to go to Qatar in 2022,” Van Marwijk said. 

While he is fondly remembered in the Kingdom — only a contractual dispute regarding backroom staff meant he did not stay on as Green Falcons coach for the Russia tournament — it is his time as the Netherlands coach that really stands out on his managerial resume. Van Marwijk coached the Oranje to within minutes of the World Cup trophy, with only an Andres Iniesta extra-time winner preventing him from tasting ultimate glory against Spain in 2010. 

So why did he return to the Gulf for another crack at World Cup qualification in a tough, crowded race? 

“One of the reasons is the feeling. I have to have the right feeling when I sign a contract,” Van Marwijk said. “We analyzed the UAE, we played four times against each other with Saudi, so I can see the potential.

“I have had the experience to go to the World Cup twice. The first time we were second in the world, the second time was with Australia (which he coached last summer) and we were a little bit unlucky — we played very well. 

“So to go to the World Cup for the third time is the goal.”

Van Marwijk is all too aware his task will be difficult. The “Golden Generation” of Emirati footballers, spearheaded by Omar Abdulrahman, tried and failed to make it to football’s biggest tournament, and a lot of the next three years’ work will likely depend on a new generation.

“I heard there were some young talents, so I’m anxious to know how good they are,” the Dutchman said. “I know the team has a few very good players — the UAE has a few weapons. 

“That’s the most important thing. If I didn’t see the potential, I wouldn’t sit here.”