DUBAI: The 13th season of the UAE’s top flight club league in its professional iteration sees the competition change name from the Arabian Gulf League to the ADNOC Pro League following the signing of a record-breaking $22 million title sponsorship deal with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
A palpable sense of excitement surrounds the domestic football scene with fans set to return to UAE stadiums for the first time since March 2020. The league has capped attendances at 60 percent of stadium capacity, with vaccinations, PCR tests and other COVID-19-related controls required to ensure a safe return to stadia.
Reigning champions Al-Jazira dominated the 2020-21 season awards in the ceremony that was held at Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace a few days ahead of the league’s restart.
Goalkeeper Ali Khaseif was named Golden Glove winner while his club and country teammate Ali Mabkhout walked away with a pair of awards, being named the Best Emirati Player as well as Top Goalscorer. Al-Jazira’s Dutch coach Marcel Keizer completed the set by winning the Manager of The Season award after guiding the Abu Dhabi club to the third league title in their history.
Determined not to rest on their laurels following a hugely impressive season, Al-Jazira retained the bulk of its title-winning side and bolstered its ranks with the addition of Brazilian winger Joao Victor from Germany’s VfL Wolfsburg.
The league may have lost its 2018-19 Best Foreign Player in Igor Coronado, who swapped Sharjah for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad, but his replacement at the club was of an even higher profile as coach Abdulaziz Al-Anbari’s side secured the services of Everton playmaker Bernard and added two-time CAF Confederation Cup top scorer Ben Malango from Morocco’s Raja Casablanca.
And it was not just the league’s last two champions Sharjah and Al-Jazira who were busy during the summer transfer window. The UAE’s most successful club side Al-Ain ended last season in sixth place, their lowest finish since 2013-14, and they responded to the setback with an emphatic transfer market that saw them recruit Argentinian playmaker Cristian Guanca from Saudi Arabia’s Al-Shabab and Tunisian international defender Yassine Meriah from Greek outfit Olympiacos.
There was notable activity on the domestic transfers front too, with last season’s Best Foreign Player Award winner Joao Pedro swapping Al-Dhafra for Al-Wahda, having spent last season on loan at Bani Yas. Tunisian forward Firas Belarbi swapped relegated Fujairah for Ajman and Iraqi youngster Mostafa Mohammed also left Fujairah, joining Dubai-based Al-Nasr.
Elsewhere, League Cup and Super Cup winners Shabab Al-Ahli boosted its squad with the capture of Iranian international midfielder Ahmed Nourollahi from Persepolis. The 28-year-old follows in the footsteps of his compatriot Ali Karimi who excelled in four seasons (2001-2005) at the club, which was then called Al-Ahl, before earning a move to European giants Bayern Munich. Nourollahi becomes the first Iranian to join an Emirati club since Mohammad Reza Khalatabari signed for Ajman in 2013.
While Sharjah and Al-Wahda will have their eyes focused on their crucial AFC Champions League round of 16 clash in September, Al-Jazira, Bani Yas and Shabab Al-Ahli will begin their 2022 Champions League campaigns during the second half of the league season, leaving Al-Nasr and Al-Ain — who finished fifth and sixth respectively last time out — with the advantage of being able to focus solely on the domestic competition as they chase a return to their glory days.
At the other end of the table, Fujairah-based Al-Urooba is set for its debut appearance in the top division and has summoned the services of Bahraini international midfielder Ali Madan on loan from Al-Riffa, making him the first player from the Gulf nation to play in the UAE’s Pro League. Fellow newly promoted Emirates Club from Ras Al-Khaimah will add to the variety of nationalities represented in the league with Mauritanian midfielder Abdullah El Koury on its roster.