Football returns to the UAE at last as AGL looks to drum up fan interest

Football returns to the UAE at last as AGL looks to drum up fan interest
Ali Mabkhout will be eager to put his boots back on and step out on to the turf. (File/AFP)
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Updated 30 September 2020

Football returns to the UAE at last as AGL looks to drum up fan interest

Football returns to the UAE at last as AGL looks to drum up fan interest
  • After a seven-month break, league and cup action will resume across the Emirates in the coming weeks
  • The return of domestic football had initially been scheduled for September but was put back due to the continued risk of the coronavirus

: It’s the news many football supporters have been waiting for all summer. After a seven-month absence brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, domestic football is returning to the UAE.

On Tuesday it was announced that the long-awaited 2020-21 Arabian Gulf League (AGL) season will kick off on Oct. 16. Before that, the Arabian Gulf Cup will start on Oct. 8, and the preliminary qualifying matches of the President’s Cup the following day.

The return of domestic football had initially been scheduled for September but was put back due to the continued risk of the coronavirus.

Matches will at first, like in most leagues around the world, be played behind closed doors and AGL fans will have to enjoy the action through their TV screens.

But after such a long break, just what level of interest will there be in a league that has often failed to attract the attention of fans, whether in the stadiums, on television or through other media?

Chris McHardy, Head of Sport, Dubai Eye 103.8, is part of Abu Dhabi Television’s AGL English commentary team, and believes that before the enforced break, efforts to raise the profile of the competition beyond its passionate but limited local fanbase were, gradually, starting to make a difference.

“The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from the fans I’ve spoken to,” he said. “However, that is largely limited to those who already had an active interest in the league or those made aware of the English language offering through the commentators own social platforms.” 

Expatriate football fans have long complained that little to no effort has been made to attract them to local stadiums or even to watch the action of their screens.

“The plan now needs to be communicating that en masse,” McHardy added. “I’ve said it many times, the standard of football here in the UAE is better than many realize. With that in mind, exposing more people to it is vitally important for its continued growth. Whether that be educating school children about the league’s history, teams and players or simply raising greater awareness of the English comms offering.”

Those familiar with the English language broadcasts will recognize the voice of  Graham Clews, Dubai One’s sports editor, and another long-time television commentator on the AGL. He believes real change will take time.

“It felt like we were making some headway as regards to awareness of the domestic league in the UAE,” Clews said. “Adding English language commentary was a crucial step forward for the league, but needs investment and nurturing for a few more seasons before we realistically start to see the results. The clubs themselves are mostly starting to come on board too and realize they need to incorporate English language content far more, for their own prosperity, not just the league as a whole.”

Many clubs, such as Abu Dhabi’s Al Jazira, and Dubai’s  Al Nasr have in recent years significantly improved their online presence, particularly through their social media accounts and campaigns, both in English and Arabic. The AGL’s vibrant official account, too, is unrecognizable today from a few years ago, thanks to a stream of video content and eye-catching graphics.

Unfortunately, the halting, and eventual cancellation, of the 2019-20 season, means some of the momentum has been lost.

“It has been very frustrating that we still haven’t started the domestic season here in the UAE,” Clews added. “Of course, we all respect the decision to delay further for safety reasons. But with the biggest leagues in the world and other leagues in the region finding the way to complete the previous season and already start a new season, we have a lot of catching up to do. I can assure you that everyone behind the scenes is raring to kick-off. Fans may have to wait longer before they can get back in their seats, but for the clubs and the stadium staff and broadcasting teams, the start of the AGL season can’t come soon enough.”

When football returns to the UAE next week, it would have had one of the longest of all GCC, Asian or international disruptions. Wael Jabir, football analyst and founder and editor of Middle East football website Ahdaaf, sees major challenges to get the AGL back on track, on and off the pitch. But he remains cautiously optimistic. 

“To come back having spent seven months without playing competitive football cannot be an easy task for the players, so I believe the work coaches did in pre-season in terms of bringing the players back to fitness will be vital,” said Jabir. “That being said, I imagine players and fans alike will be hungrier than ever for the return of the AGL and hopefully that should add an extra buzz around the new season. The postponement from September to October gave everyone an extra window to be fully prepared, and clubs who competed in the AFC Champions League this month will have a major advantage, playing against the best teams in West Asia is great preparation for the domestic season even if those clubs didn’t get the desired results continentally.”

Indeed, the elimination of three of the UAE’s four representative - Shabab Al Ahli being the exception - from the AFC Champions League group stages may have hastened the return of domestic football, which had seen the winds of change blowing through it even before the break.

At the start of the year, the UAE Football Association had taken the unprecedented move of selecting the South American trio of Sebastián Tagliabúe (Argentina), and the Brazilian duo of Caio Canedo and Fabio Lima to the national team after they had gained their Emirati citizenships. It remains to be seen if this short-term fix will breathe new life into the national team’s 2022 World Cup qualification campaign. Many, however, worry that this move might come at the expense of promoting young local players, though other rule changes have positively impacted young Arab talent as well.

Jabir is well placed to identify the talent that exists in the AGL. Talent that very often goes under the radar of football fans obsessed with Champions League, Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A action.

“I’m excited about a new generation of players who also have the advantage of including talent such as Abdullah Ramadan, Yahya Al Ghassani and Yahya Nader who have all benefited from the change of rules allowing sons of expats and Emirati mothers to represent the national team and play in the AGL, outside the foreign players quotas. It remains to be seen whether the FA gets it right with manager selections and providing the environment for those kids to flourish. Hearing Ali Saleh [of Al Wasl] speak about his desire to move abroad is also an important message which I hope more of the younger players echo as that would be one way they can surpass the previous generations.”

Despite the break, AGL clubs continued to conduct significant transfer business during summer, and Jabir is eager to see the impact of the new signings when the action returns.

“This has been an extended summer transfer window and it will continue until October, and there have definitely been some quality additions,” he said. “In terms of new signings, I’m excited about the prospects of Tim Matavz at Al Wahda; he brings the experience of playing at a World Cup with Slovenia and representing big clubs like PSV and Genoa.” 

“Carlos Eduardo can also prove to be an astute signing for Shabab Al Ahli,” Jabir added. “He knows the region well and is arguably the best foreign player to represent Al Hilal in Saudi in the past 30 years. Outside the top six, there are also interesting deals, keep an eye on Gustavo Vagenin at Ajman and Argentinian pair Gaston Suarez and Nicolas Gimenez at Bani Yas.”

As for those already gracing the AGL, Jabir has high praise for Igor Coronado of champions Sharjah as well as a gifted Emirati now being mentioned in the same breath as this country’s best players of the last decade.

“He [Coronado] is by far the finest player in the country,” he said. “While Khalfan Mubarak has become as much of a superstar at Al Jazira as his more established teammates Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout. Fabio de Lima at Al Wasl is one player who never fails to get me off my seat and I expect him to continue to impress next season.”

The local and foreign talent will be on show when the league returns, but will the fans switch on and, eventually, fill up the empty stands? McHardy believes only with more exposure and long-term planning.

“I’m aware of some fantastic initiatives that the league is working on ahead of the new campaign,” McHardy, who is also head of sport at the Arabian Radio Network (ARN) said. “We at ARN and specifically Dubai Eye 103.8 are committed to giving the league increased exposure and helping build the narrative. I do feel there is an onus on the local media to do more, but in order for that to happen it’s the clubs who need to do more, not necessarily just the league, as they can only do so much.”

The coming weeks, and months, will show whether, when it comes to the AGL, absence really did make the heart grow fonder.