This has been a week like no other in the ADNOC Pro League.
A flurry of big-name additions has turned an unforeseeably strong transfer window into an utterly astonishing one.
Al-Ain’s early summer capture of Ukraine maestro Andriy Yarmolenko, plus Sharjah’s double swoop for Barcelona alumni Paco Alcacer and Miralem Pjanic, surpassed wildest hopes. Yet, these elite deals were just a starting point.
A bravura weekend witnessed the King’s remarkable business continue with esteemed Olympiacos and Greece center-back Kostas Manolas. He of “Romantada” fame and regular extravagantly priced Premier League links.
This would be swiftly followed by Al-Nasr tying up flamboyant Benfica and Morocco midfielder Adel Taarabt, with Al-Wahda emphatically reacting to the new season’s unbearably slow start by securing Everton’s Brazil warrior Allan. The 31-year-old should line up alongside the previously procured Pizzi, a former Benfica skipper and Portugal midfielder.
There was more to come.
Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club made, arguably, Asia’s leading deal of the market with Jason Denayer, the coveted 27-year-old ex-Lyon center-back, holding genuine pretensions about making Belgium’s World Cup 2022 roster.
Al-Jazira decisively reacted to influential Serbia center-back Milos Kosanovic’s fibula surgery by bringing in Czech Republic and Fenerbahce utility defender Filip Novak.
Such revered names were meant to be a thing of the past in the UAE’s topflight. Memories had faded of a gilded age experienced at the previous decade’s midpoint with Ghana superstar Asamoah Gyan, Brazil striker Grafite and Montenegro hit man Mirko Vucinic.
World Cup winners Fabio Cannavaro, David Trezeguet and Luca Toni preceded this celebrated cohort, but with unsatisfactory returns.
The UAE Pro League had consigned itself to casting envious glances in the direction of the Roshn Saudi League and the Qatar Stars League, as stellar name after stellar name chose to disembark within their borders.
Emirati outfits, increasingly, failed to challenge in the AFC Champions League. Al-Ahli and Al-Ain were defeated in the 2015 and 2016 finals. And from 2018 until Wahda in 2021, none of their contingent made the last eight.
This status quo has been shattered. The question now is how markedly.
Change does not occur in isolation.
The UAE has emerged from the COVID-19 health crisis with a burgeoning economy, further bolstered amid 2022’s surging commodity prices.
Financial services giant Deloitte was consulted five years ago by the governing body, the then-named Pro League Committee, as an understandable drive toward self-sustainability was sought. The UAE Football Association would apply a salary cap for local players in the same period.
These aims remain. Increased resources now, though, are available.
Leadership is also key.
The ADNOC Pro League launched expanded English-language commentary for the 2019-20 season as it attempted to tap into wider communities and markets — a venture advanced by this month’s first live studio for Jazira’s epic 2-1 victory in the Capital Derby against champions Al-Ain. More will follow.
Clubs and organizers have also actively engaged with fans to drive numbers back into stands.
Even promoted Dibba Al-Fujairah now call an enviable AED100-million ($27 million) stadium home, while new boys Al-Bataeh are aggressively sweeping up impressive domestic buys and garnering attention.
Yarmolenko, Manolas, Pjanic and company, actualize the UAE’s “build it and they will come” mentality.
The innate strengths of Saudi Arabia’s and Qatar’s premier competitions are unquestionable. Both leagues, especially the Kingdom’s, recruited extensively this pre-season.
But a familiar face appears poised to re-join them at Asian football’s top table.
Now, a title race to savor in the UAE is the minimum expectation.
Holders Al-Ain’s surprise opening with four points from three matches is a sign of overall strength, not weakness. This is despite landing 2022 Golden Boy nominee Matias Palacios, retaining head coach Serhiy Rebrov and gifting him Yarmolenko’s signature.
The 2020-21 champions Al-Jazira are revitalized by the presence of Romania forward Florin Tanase and electric Morocco winger Achraf Bencharki. Ali Mabkhout, an icon for club and country, has responded with seven goal contributions in 305 minutes.
Sharjah’s spine could hardly be stronger with Manolas, Pjanic and Alcacer. That they possess, potentially, the continent’s outstanding tactician in Cosmin Olaroiu, plus numerous UAE talents, further strengthens last season’s runners-up.
Carlos Carvalhal will, surely, come good at Allan’s Wahda. Leonardo Jardim’s CV speaks for itself at Shabab Al-Ahli and so too Denayer’s and 2017 AFC Player of the Year Omar Khrbin’s.
Dark horses come in the guise of Ittihad Kalba, who welcome Galatasaray loanee Alexandru Cicaldau, and even Bataeh. Former Saudi Arabia boss Juan Antonio Pizzi has made an entertaining start at Al-Wasl, with legendary playmaker Omar Abdulrahman appearing rejuvenated after his fallow spell.
Taarabt has sprinkled stardust into the ranks of Bur Dubai rivals Al-Nasr. First impressions of manager Thorsten Fink are positive.
This glamorous cast has ensured the ADNOC Pro League will put on a show for 2022/23.
Euphoria about enlivening foreign captures was tempered by concurrent international matters.
Tuesday’s 4-0 friendly thrashing by Venezuela followed a 1-0 reversal to Paraguay. Both are within the bottom-three-ranked South American nations by FIFA.
These chastening results evidence how far the UAE game, as a whole, still has to go. No matter the monstrous size of steps being taken.
Defining characteristics of this influx’s lasting legacy cannot be confined to just social media engagements, ticket sales or entertainment value on the pitch, important as these markers are.
Hallowed progression to a second World Cup in 2026 represents real return on investment.
This outlay will be worth every dirham if invaluable lessons learned beside these established stars can transform slender AFC fourth-round qualification defeat for Qatar 2022 into jubilation for Canada, Mexico and the US.