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.”


‘No surprises’ about former Premier League duo Nordin Amrabat, Jurado flying high in Saudi Arabia

Updated 13 November 2018
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‘No surprises’ about former Premier League duo Nordin Amrabat, Jurado flying high in Saudi Arabia

  • Amrabat signed for big-spending Al-Nassr in the summer and has scored three goals in eight games
  • Jurado, meanwhile, joined Al-Ahli from Espanyol in the summer and his playmaking ability has resulted in the Jeddah giants succeeding

LONDON: A former Premier League coach is not surprised high-profile imports Nordin Amrabat and Jose Manuel Jurado are flourishing in the Saudi Pro League, believing they have the ability and the pedigree to inspire their clubs to mount a title challenge.
Amrabat signed for big-spending Al-Nassr in the summer and has scored three goals in eight games to propel Jose Daniel Carreno’s side up to third in the table. Jurado, meanwhile, joined Al-Ahli from Espanyol in the summer and his playmaking ability has resulted in the Jeddah giants becoming the second most prolific team in the league. Both clubs are hot on the heels of leaders Al-Hilal and are prepared to pounce should the champions slip up.
Dean Austin, the former Tottenham defender, coached both Amrabat and Jurado at Premier League club Watford and has kept a keen eye on their fortunes.
“I’ve followed their careers closely since I worked with them and I saw they had moved to Saudi Arabia,” Austin told Arab News. “I fully expected them to make a big impact as they are very good players and top professionals. It sounds like they are really enjoying themselves and good luck to them as they both work so hard.”
Amrabat, 31, became Al-Nassr’s fourth costliest player ever when he joined from Watford for £7.65m ($10.05m). According to Austin, he is capable of playing on either flank and has experience of playing in Holland, in La Liga and the Premier League.
Amrabat has said in previous interviews he feels he plays his best football on the left flank, where he can cut in on his favored right foot and have a crack at goal. He is playing on the left in a 4-1-4-1 formation at Al-Nassr.
“I felt he was good enough to play off either flank, but I guess the left might have been his preference,” said Austin. “If he is going to play there, I think you need a really quick, offensive left-back who is prepared to go past him and go on the outside. You need to have the correct balance in the team.”
Moroccan Amrabat was in many pundits’ team of the World Cup at the end of the group stages. His displays helped his team to a 2-2 draw with Spain and saw them narrowly lose out to Portugal.
“He had a good World Cup and I reckon there would have been a few clubs looking at him. He has pace, strength, a great desire and is a really willing worker. He wants to work,” Austin said.
Amrabat played in the same Watford side as Jurado in 2016 and they were reunited when Al-Ahli beat Al-Nassr 2-0 in Riyadh earlier this month. Jurado was taken to Watford and then to Espanyol by Quique Sanchez Flores, the coach who was offered the chance to take the top job at Al-Hilal earlier this year.
Sanchez Flores never made it to the Kingdom, but Jurado, 32, did and he is showing why he played at Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Schalke.
“He is a really good technician,” said Austin. “He is silky smooth and can pass off either foot. From the first day at Watford, you could tell he was seriously talented. He’s clever and a very talented footballer.”
Jurado did not pull up as many trees in the Premier League as Watford hoped and he lasted just one season before returning to Spain.
“He had an indifferent time with us,” said Austin. “He had some good games, but he found it tough in some others. He came to us from Russia and it was not easy to adapt. He found it very quick, but the Premier League is a very difficult league and he probably didn’t show us as much as he would have liked. Sometimes with Jose, it’s about trying to find the right balance of the team to have him in it.”
Al-Ahli coach Pablo Guede is fielding Jurado in a left-sided role just behind Djaniny, the big-money summer signing from Mexico, or as a No. 10 behind Djaniny and the prolific Omar Al-Somah.
Jurado scored his first goal in the 2-0 win over Al-Faisaly and pulled the strings in the 5-1 rout of Al-Fateh, claiming two assists. Jurado has played alongside Raul, won the Europa League and finished runner-up in La Liga twice, but Austin says the playmaker is “as humble as they come.”