Iniesta tops star-studded roster of players and coaches as UAE Pro League season kicks off

Iniesta tops star-studded roster of players and coaches as UAE Pro League season kicks off
All eyes are on Andres Iniesta of Emirates FC as the new UAE Pro League kicks off. (Twitter: @Emirates_FC)
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Updated 17 August 2023
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Iniesta tops star-studded roster of players and coaches as UAE Pro League season kicks off

Iniesta tops star-studded roster of players and coaches as UAE Pro League season kicks off
  • The 2023-24 campaign promises to be just as exciting as previous one, which featured a thrilling three-way battle for the title

The 2023-24 UAE Pro League season kicks off on Friday, and with the likes of legendary Spanish midfielder Andres Iniesta and Paraguayan magician Kaku lining up on the pitch, and Netherlands great Frank de Boer and revolutionary South African tactician Pitso Mosimane occupying dugouts, there are ample reasons to believe a repeat of last term’s engrossing campaign is on the cards.

Here are some of the main talking points, plus our predictions, ahead of what seems likely to be another season to savor.

Iniesta’s incredible arrival

It takes something a little bit special for an unheralded, newly promoted side to lead off a season preview. Emirates Club’s refreshingly covert capture of Barcelona legend Iniesta was just that.

How useful a 39-year-old attacking midfielder, who recorded just four goalless J1 League run-outs for Vissel Kobe between February and July this year, will prove to be during what is likely to be a grueling relegation scrap is up for debate. It is not a deal that guarantees the club will avoid a repeat of the 2021-22 season, when they were similarly newly promoted but went straight back down again.

Nonetheless, this is a move that further elevates a competition on the rise. Last season’s impressive growth in attendances and interest can only be boosted by the presence of a universally revered superstar.

The Roshn Saudi League’s unprecedented summer shopping spree has dominated the discourse about Middle Eastern football. When it comes to name recognition alone, however, only Al-Hilal’s signing of Neymar can match the arrival of Iniesta in the region.

New faces, new excitement

ADNOC Pro League viewers were spoiled in last season. A tight, three-way title race and a relegation battle that went down to the wire on the last day made it a season for the ages. There is every chance the new season can go the same way.

At the top, holders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club have added Premier League stalwart Luka Milivojevic and Israel forward Mu’nas Dabbur. Three-time Confederation of African Football Champions League winner Mosimane has added his know-how to Al-Wahda’s mix, with former Ajax supremo Alfred Schreuder is motivated to showcase his best at dethroned champions Al-Ain, alongside 2022-23 Saudi top-flight assist leader Kaku.

De Boer has last season’s Europa League winner Karim Rekik in his squad at Al-Jazira, while 2022’s big-spenders Sharjah have added Tunisia’s Firas Ben Larbi as they aim to convert four cup victories into league supremacy.

Swiss center forward Haris Seferovic teaming up at Al-Wasl with Nicolas Gimenez, formerly of Baniyas, and crowd favorite Caio Canedo, re-signed after four unsatisfactory seasons at Al-Ain, whets the appetite at a club striving for glory for the first time since 2006-07.

But the deep reservoir of talent does not end there.

Best of the rest

A number of other clubs also look refreshed. Ajman lost their talisman, Ben Larbi, to Al-Sharjah but gained fellow Tunisia stars Nader Ghandri, a hulking center back who started in Tunisia’s World Cup 2022 victory over his native France, and burgeoning midfielder Haykeul Chikhaoui.

Ajman’s former coach, Goran Tufegdzic, is now at the helm of Al-Nasr, where Italy striker Manolo Gabbiadini and former Spezia star Kevin Agudelo will link up with retained Morocco maestro Adel Taarabt in their bid to cast aside the tag of “perennial underachievers.”

Former Ettifaq forward Youssoufou Niakate could change everything at goal-shy Baniyas, while Mehdi Ghayedi, on loan from Shabab Al-Ahli, aims to regain his sheen under mentor Farhad Majidi at Ittihad Kalba.

‘Golden boys’ get another shot

Iran forward Ghayedi is not the only former “golden boy” with something to prove. Pre-season pictures suggest that a pair of Asian Football Confederation Player of the Year winners are ready to make a renewed impact.

Omar Abdulrahman’s trademark curls have gone as he looks to build on a solid debut campaign with a deeper midfield role at Al-Wasl.

A svelte Ahmed Khalil could be a game changer for Al-Bataeh. The 2015 Asian Footballer of the Year last netted in the Pro League in November 2020 and made only seven appearances last term.

If injury doubts can be consigned to the past, it could make for a brighter future for upstart sides who must wring absolutely everything out of each asset.

Battle at the bottom

Final-day dramatics kept Al-Bataeh in the top flight last season and the club, founded in 2012, have put in work during the summer to avoid a similar fate this time.

New head coach Mirel Radoi stabilized Al-Tai in the Saudi Pro League last season. He’s joined in the UAE by Cape Verde center back Diney and former Shanghai Port playmaker Paulinho. The loss of 13-goal forward Lourency to Khor Fakkan has diminished them, however, while significantly strengthening a potential relegation rival.

Among the newly promoted sides, Emirates require Cameroon battler Franck Kom to add grit and Iniesta lashings of inspiration.

Hatta have already mixed and matched in the transfer market, emerging with a series of foreign captures. They boast contemporary international experience in the form of Sweden midfielder Moustafa Zeidan, Slovakia center back Vernon De Marco, Democratic Republic of Congo midfielder Aaron Tshibola and Kuwait forward Shabaib Al-Khaldi.

Asian Cup casts a long shadow

Another season influenced by international distractions is in store. After the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup comes the rearranged Asian Cup, which begins at the end of this month.

Question marks linger about the UAE’s prospects after their chastening group-stage exit from the Arabian Gulf Cup in January.

Former South Korea and Portugal supremo Paulo Bento was tasked in July with guiding a nation that has lost its way since two successive semi-final runs at Asia’s showpiece event.

Will a goal scorer emerge who can adequately support Ali Mabkhout? His 27 league goals tally last season was eight more than naturalized colleague Fabio de Lima and 18 more than Ittihad Kalba’s uncapped Ahmed Al-Naqbi.

Is there a better option in goal than typical picks Ali Khaseif or Khalid Essa? Will a workable successor to towering center back Ismail Ahmed ever appear?

Bento has four months, and 12 match weeks, to find the answers.

Arab News predictions for the 2023-24 ADNOC Pro League season

Champions: Al-Wahda.

They ended last season strongly and expertly recruited during the summer to secure the services of serial winner Mosimane and Al-Shabab loanee Cristian Guanca, who claimed the 2021-22 trophy with Al-Ain.

Surprise package: Baniyas.

Niakate is the prolific striker they’ve been crying out for.

Signing of the season: Iniesta.

Who else? It’s going to be enthralling to see how he gets on, but…

Relegated: Emirates Club and Al-Bataeh.

Iniesta simply has too much to do for the former, while the latter will fail to build on last term’s great escape.


Paqueta to stay in Brazil squad ahead of Copa America as he fights spot-fixing charges in England

Paqueta to stay in Brazil squad ahead of Copa America as he fights spot-fixing charges in England
Updated 30 May 2024
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Paqueta to stay in Brazil squad ahead of Copa America as he fights spot-fixing charges in England

Paqueta to stay in Brazil squad ahead of Copa America as he fights spot-fixing charges in England
  • He was charged with misconduct on May 23 and faces a long ban if found guilty by English soccer authorities
  • Paqueta immediately took to social media to deny the charges

RIO DE JANEIRO: Lucas Paqueta can continue to play for Brazil while he fights spot-fixing charges by the English Football Association, his national team said Thursday.
Paqueta, who plays his club soccer for West Ham, is alleged to have deliberately received yellow cards during Premier League matches to influence betting markets.
He was charged with misconduct on May 23 and faces a long ban if found guilty by English soccer authorities.
Paqueta immediately took to social media to deny the charges, vowing to “fight with every breath to clear my name,” but has until Monday to formally respond to the allegations. The English FA has acknowledged that Paqueta may request for an extension before issuing his official response.
In a long statement on Thursday, the Brazilian Football Confederation said it was aware of the allegations and contacted the English FA for information.
Based on the English FA’s responses, confederation president Ednaldo Rodrigues Gomes said Paqueta will stay in Brazil’s squad ahead of the Copa America starting June 20 and remains free to play in upcoming friendlies against Mexico and the United States.


Saudi national football team prepares for Asian qualifiers

Saudi national football team prepares for Asian qualifiers
Updated 30 May 2024
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Saudi national football team prepares for Asian qualifiers

Saudi national football team prepares for Asian qualifiers
  • Players participating in the King’s Cup final between Al-Nasser and Al-Hilal on Friday will join the national squad on Sunday
  • Green Falcons fly to Islamabad on Wednesday for their game against Pakistan on Thursday, and then host Jordan in Riyadh on June 11

RIYADH: The Saudi national football team gathered at their training camp in Riyadh on Thursday to begin preparations for the upcoming Asian qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup and the 2027 Asian Cup.
As the Green Falcons held their first training session on Thursday evening behind closed doors at Mahd Academy, members of the squad from Al-Nasser and Al-Hilal, who will meet in the final of the King’s Cup on Friday, were absent. They will join the national team’s preparations on Sunday after head coach Roberto Mancini gave them a day off on Saturday to recover.
The 31-player squad, announced by Mancini last week, will fly out on Wednesday for their game against Pakistan in Islamabad on June 6, and then host Jordan at Alwal park in Riyadh on June 11.
Saudi Arabia currently tops Group G of the Asian qualifiers, with 10 points from four games, ahead of Jordan (7 points) and Tajikistan (5). Pakistan are bottom of the group having lost all four games so far.


Maradona’s heirs lose court battle to block auction of World Cup Golden Ball trophy

Maradona’s heirs lose court battle to block auction of World Cup Golden Ball trophy
Updated 30 May 2024
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Maradona’s heirs lose court battle to block auction of World Cup Golden Ball trophy

Maradona’s heirs lose court battle to block auction of World Cup Golden Ball trophy
  • Maradona’s heirs tried to stop the auction of the Golden Ball trophy he received for being the best player of the 1986 World Cup
  • Lawyer Gilles Moreu told The AP the court’s ruling “was not favorable to the heirs of Diego Maradona” and said he would lodge an appeal

PARIS: A French court ruled the auction of a trophy awarded to the late Diego Maradona after the 1986 World Cup can go ahead as planned despite opposition from his heirs, their lawyer told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Maradona’s heirs tried to stop the auction of the Golden Ball trophy he received for being the best player of the 1986 World Cup by starting an urgent judicial procedure. Lawyer Gilles Moreu told The AP the court’s ruling “was not favorable to the heirs of Diego Maradona” and said he would lodge an appeal.
The trophy is set to be auctioned next Thursday in Paris by the Aguttes auction house, which did not immediately comment on the ruling.
The Golden Ball was missing for decades after it disappeared in uncertain circumstances and only recently resurfaced. Maradona’s heirs say the trophy was stolen and claimed the current owner wasn’t entitled to sell it. Aguttes said the trophy reappeared in 2016 among other lots that were acquired from a private collection at auction in Paris.
Moreu said the president of the Nanterre court outside Paris considered the current owner of the trophy, identified as Mr. Benchaieb, “should be considered as acting in good faith.”
Benchaieb and Aguttes claimed that when he bought the trophy years ago he was not aware it had been stolen.
“The Ballon d’Or is a unique piece of property, which Diego Maradona’s children want back,” Moreu said. “My clients are extremely saddened by the court’s decision.”
Maradona received the award in 1986 at a ceremony at the Lido cabaret on the Champs-Élysées. It subsequently disappeared, giving rise to rumors. Some say it was lost during a poker game or sold to pay off debts. Others say Maradona stored it in a safe in a Naples bank that was robbed by local gangsters in 1989 when he played in the Italian league. Maradona’s heirs believe it was stolen from the bank.
French judicial officials last week opened an investigation after they received a complaint relating to the resale of allegedly stolen goods. The Nanterre prosecutor’s office did not say whether the court’s decision would have an impact on the probe, and if it was still ongoing.
Maradona, who died in 2020 at age 60, captained Argentina in its 3-2 win over West Germany in the 1986 final in Mexico City. In a quarterfinal win over England he scored the “Hand of God” goal and the “Goal of the Century.”
Aguttes said it expects the trophy “to fetch millions due to its uniqueness.”
Bidders will be asked to make a deposit of 150,000 euros ($161,000) to participate in the auction.
The Hand of God goal came when Maradona punched the ball into England’s net. Four minutes later, he weaved through England’s midfield and defense and past goalkeeper Peter Shilton for what FIFA later declared the greatest goal in World Cup history.


Kompany to stick with same footballing principles after swapping Burnley for Bayern Muncih

Kompany to stick with same footballing principles after swapping Burnley for Bayern Muncih
Updated 30 May 2024
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Kompany to stick with same footballing principles after swapping Burnley for Bayern Muncih

Kompany to stick with same footballing principles after swapping Burnley for Bayern Muncih
  • “At this club and this journey, I have no intention of being a different person,” Kompany said
  • Kompany said the fact that next season’s Champions League final is being staged at Munich’s Allianz Arena will be used as some motivation

MUNICH: Vincent Kompany insists his footballing principles will not change after swapping the Championship for the Champions League by making the unlikely move from Burnley to Bayern Munich.
Kompany led Burnley to promotion to the Premier League in his first season at the northwest English club, only to get a reality check when his bold and attacking style of play was exposed in the top division.
Burnley’s relegation led to accusations by some that Kompany’s tactics were naïve, but the former Manchester City and Belgium defender said he was proud to have stayed consistent “in the very highs and the very lows” and will be working the same way at Bayern.
“At this club and this journey, I have no intention of being a different person,” Kompany said on Thursday at a news conference where he was presented as the replacement for Thomas Tuchel. “I don’t think that’s what they want.”
Kompany will, therefore, ask the same things from Bayern’s higher-quality players as he did from those at Burnley.
“I want the players of Bayern Munich to be brave, really brave on the ball, to have personality on the ball,” he said. “But also my nature is, I’m also someone that is aggressive, so I want the team to be aggressive.
“I want the team to represent those two things that would make my character — absolutely brave when they have the ball, when they’re making decisions, and absolutely aggressive, something that they carry throughout every minute of the game always.”
Kompany said the fact that next season’s Champions League final is being staged at Munich’s Allianz Arena will be used as some motivation.
“The goal is for me quite simple: I always try to win every match. It doesn’t matter where you are, it is always most, most important that we want to win every match,” he said. “That the Champions League final is here in Munich might make it a bit more important than the others, if I am honest. But I know we will not reach it by just expressing it.”


Celebrations in Greece as Olympiakos beat Fiorentina 1-0 for first European title

Celebrations in Greece as Olympiakos beat Fiorentina 1-0 for first European title
Updated 30 May 2024
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Celebrations in Greece as Olympiakos beat Fiorentina 1-0 for first European title

Celebrations in Greece as Olympiakos beat Fiorentina 1-0 for first European title
  • Olympiakos coach Jose Luis Mendilibar secured a second straight European title after winning the Europa League with Sevilla last season
  • Tens of thousands of Olympiakos fans joined wild celebrations across the Greek capital after attending outdoor viewing parties

ATHENS: Olympiakos won Greece’s first European club title by beating Fiorentina 1-0 with a last-gasp goal in extra time in the Europa Conference League final on Wednesday.

Ayoub El Kaabi provided the dramatic ending, diving to nudge in a last-gasp goal in the second period of extra time, with fans erupting in celebration after a lengthy wait for a VAR check for offside.

The Moroccan striker — who finished as the competition’s top scorer — struck in the 116th minute of the match, dropping to his knees as he waited the goal review. El Kaabi met a cross from Santiago Hezze to decide a game that had looked destined for a penalty shootout following an energetic but largely risk-free encounter at AEK Arena.

The late goal condemned Fiorentina and ttheir coach Vincenzo Italiano to a second straight defeat in the final of the Europa Conference League, after losing last year to West Ham.

Olympiakos coach Jose Luis Mendilibar secured a second straight European title after winning the Europa League with Sevilla last season.

Tens of thousands of Olympiakos fans joined wild celebrations across the Greek capital after attending outdoor viewing parties. Youths held up lit flares in the port city of Piraeus, near Athens, where the team is based.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis described Olympiakos as “a true legend,” adding in an online post: “Olympiakos has won the Europa Conference League and made history! A sensational night for the club itself, but also for Greek football as a whole.”

The third-tier European club competition took place amid a massive security operation, with some 5,000 police officers forming concentric cordons around a northern area of the capital.

The final was briefly marred by scuffles between Fiorentina fans inside the stadium and riot police next to them.

Although the visitors dominated the early stages of the final, Fiorentina goalkeeper Pietro Terracciano kept his team in the game with two impressive fingertip saves to block on-target shots from Daniel Podence in the fourth minute and Stevan Jovetic in the sixth minute of extra time.

El Kaabi, who scored a total of 11 goals in the competition, had been largely sidelined in the match by Fiorentina’s unyielding four-man defense.