The Saudi Professional League ended on June 27 and since the action on the pitch stopped, transfer news has dominated with a stream of big names either signing or being talked about.
If it is not Al-Nassr’s new coach Rudi Garcia bringing in David Ospina and Ghislain Konan and being linked with Barcelona’s Miralem Pjanic, it is Al-Ittihad’s Nuno Espirito Santo getting ready to draft in European reinforcements, and Al-Shabab signing Polish international Grzegorz Krychowiak and being linked with newly appointed Egypt coach Rui Vitoria.
Despite all the early activity, Saudi Arabia’s clubs are, however, not having it all their own way in the region.
On Wednesday, UAE league champions Al-Ain announced the signing of Andriy Yarmolenko on a one-year deal. It was all done on social media with the 32-year-old winger giving the club’s supporters a simple message: “Hello Al-Ain fans. I’m happy to join this big club. I promise you to fight for this t-shirt.”
— Al Ain FC (@alainfcae_en) July 13, 2022
The Ukrainian connection with Al-Ain boss Serhiy Rebrov has obviously played a part as Yarmolenko has been in demand ever since leaving West Ham United last month. That is not a surprise. After arriving from Borussia Dortmund in 2018, his four years in East London were a success with 86 competitive matches bringing 13 goals and seven assists. His international record is even more impressive as his 45 goals in 109 games for Ukraine is a strike tally second only to the legendary Andriy Shevchenko, Rebrov’s former strike partner in crime at both club and country level.
Rebrov, who took Saudi giants Al-Ahli to second in the 2017/18 SPL campaign, delivered the league title for Al-Ain last season and is now strengthening as he prepares to defend that hard-won crown. It is a coup for the club because the destination of the former Borussia Dortmund and Dinamo Kiev star has been a source of much discussion.
“He can play in Europe. It is important for him to find the best option for himself and start preparing for the season,” Rebrov said earlier this week. “But it’s up to Andriy. Andriy is an ambitious guy. He wants to fight for titles and win every match. I’m sure he’s still ready to play at a high level. He needs to pick the right team.”
It is not hard to guess that Rebrov believes Al-Ain is the right team for the star. There have been links with Inter Miami, clubs in Turkey and talk of an emotional return to Dinamo Kyiv, the club where he spent almost a decade from 2008 to 2017 (that is still on the cards in the future). Most headlines were focused on Fulham, newly promoted to the English Premier League from the Championship.
Rebrov suggested however that joining a club that will be focused on survival — Fulham have lasted just one season in the English Premier League after their last two promotions — was not the best outcome for the player. “If this is an offer from a team that sets the task of staying in the Premier League then, for me, this is not an offer for Andriy Yarmolenko.”
Such comments may not go down well in certain parts of West London but there is going to be plenty for Yarmolenko to get stuck into next season. Al-Ain have to focus on defending the title they won by a clear 10 points last season. And while his arrival is good news for the league in general, it will mean that the rest of the league are really going to have their work cut out next season. Al-Ain have just got a lot stronger.
The title challengers are strengthening too, however. Yarmolenko’s signing comes soon after the arrival of Leonardo Jardim to take over Shabab Al-Ahli. The Portuguese coach won the 2021 Asian Champions League with Al-Hilal before being fired in February. With his achievement of taking Monaco to the 2017 French title and later to the last four of the UEFA Champions League, Jardim has pedigree.
As does new Al-Wasl boss Juan Antonio Pizzi, Copa America winner who was in charge of the Green Falcons at the 2018 World Cup. The well-travelled Portuguese boss Carlos Carvalhal is now with Al-Wahda. Such coaching talent and experience is not only good for the league in terms of football played but as Rebrov has demonstrated, it makes it easier to bring players they are connected with to the UAE.
It remains to be seen if all this makes the league more exciting in terms of having a close and dramatic title race but having top coaches joined by a talent such as Yarmolenko adds a major sprinkle of star power to UAE football to show that it is not all about Saudi Arabia.