Uncertain times in UAE football as China flexes its financial muscle

The Al Jazira team take to the pitch in August 2011. Mike Young / The National

As the football transfer window prepares to close next Tuesday, the newfound riches of Chinese clubs have the chairmen of Europe’s top sides feeling fretful each time their phone rings. Chelsea’s Diego Costa, Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus’s Gonzalo Higuaín have all attracted attention from East Asian outfits, who between them have spent close to Dh1 billion in the past month alone. Yet China’s unshackled spending is not only striking fear into high-profile European clubs who previously only had each other to worry about.
Closer to home, football in the UAE is growing increasingly wary too. Next year will mark a decade of professionalism here but despite Arabian Gulf League (AGL) clubs finishing runners-up in the Asian Champions League twice in the past two years, the future of the game here has already been slowed by the flexing of financial muscle by the Chinese Super League (CSL).
And it appears set to worsen.
"The Chinese are spending a lot of money now and are able to take good foreign players from our clubs," says Yousuf Al Serkal, president of the UAE Football Association from 2004-2008 and 2012-2016.
"Now players in the Emirates are being approached to go play in China and it’s an attractive option, considering what’s involved. I think the Chinese have ambitions for their league to reach the same level as Japan and Korea."
CSL clubs are bankrolled by huge corporations willing to spend eye-watering sums in a bid to quicken Chinese president Xi Jinping’s goal of seeing his country win the World Cup by 2050.
World football, long operating in a financial realm unfathomable to most sports, has never seen spending such as the £615,000-per-week (Dh2,823,600) deal Shanghai Shenhua agreed to pay Carlos Tevez or the £58 million (Dh266m) Shanghai SIPG paid Chelsea for an out-of-favour player, Oscar.
"This can only hurt our championship," says Al Serkal. "We are already seeing it."
In 2015, before the likes of Axel Witsel and John Obi Mikel were upping sticks for Tianjin, Al Ain sold Asamoah Gyan, the three-time AGL top goalscorer, to Shanghai SIPG. Four months later, Guangzhou Evergrande, complete with £25m (Dh115m) Brazilian pair Paulinho and Ricardo Goulart, beat Al Ahli in the Asian Champions League final.
The UAE league knows the feeling of being in the spotlight. In 2011, the AGL was being spoken of worldwide when it was announced Diego Maradona would coach Dubai-based Al Wasl. Yet nowadays should a high-profile manager such as Manuel Pellegrini or André Villas-Boas be willing to switch Europe for an Asian adventure, AGL clubs – even with the lure of tax-free wages – are unable to compete. Instead, the UAE now opts for lesser-known coaches, such as Zlatko Dalic and Henk ten Cate.
Al Wasl’s head coach Diego Maradona protests a call in a game against Al Ain, April 2012. Mike Young / The National
Most consequential though, with China – like the UAE – being allocated four places in the Champions League, AGL’s hopes of winning the continent’s main competition are slimmer than ever. China has boasted the best team in Asia twice in the past four years, despite it being the UAE FA who made continental success the ultimate goal when they introduced professionalism in 2008.
Although the Emirates’ domestic league has a history that dates back to 1973, it took 35 years before the professional era arrived, heralded by the 2008 Super Cup. The previous year, the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) had proposed a new law, ruling that each association that intended to compete in the following season’s Champions League must run a professional league. It said nations who failed to meet this criteria would be rejected.
The national

Date : 1/27/2017 12:49:37 PM

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