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Why is football poor in land of riches?

Kaka, who recently rejected a move to Arab-owned Manchester City, trains in Dubai with his AC Milan team-mates

By Chris Whyatt

The rollercoaster saga that saw AC Milan's Brazilian attacking genius Kaka eventually reject a world-record move to Manchester City might have broken the will of some individuals.

But probably not City's wealthy Arab owners, who are determined to set the Manchester club on the road to unparalleled success.

The Al Nahyans of Abu Dhabi bought the Blues in September for 200m - small change for the former tribal clan estimated to be worth 15 billion - and are now happily endowing them with an almost limitless, unprecedented budget for this January's transfer window.

But with 'fantasy football' riches being lavished on the game abroad, should the all-powerful Sheikhs not be looking closer to home? BBC Sport investigates the state of football in the United Arab Emirates.


Virtually brand new. Football, though hugely popular with locals, did not have a fully-recognised professional league until the UFL (UAE Football League) started in September.

It was set up after a firm nudge from the Asian Football Confederation, whose Premier League-loving president Mohammed Bin Hamman has demanded that all leagues must implement a commercially-driven professional management system to ensure they are self-sufficient.

Romy Gai, who spent 14 years as marketing director of Italian giants Juventus, has been handed the job of leading the UFL to the promised land of professionalism in his role as UFL chief executive.

UAE footballer Ismail Mattar
108th - Georgia
109th - Guatemala
110th - United Arab Emirates
111th - El Salvador
112th - Montenegro

"I was surprised at the lack of organisation," Gai told BBC Sport.

"But I saw how enthusiastic they are about this new era, how they are proud to be part of this new professional league and how much they want to know and learn.

"Having the chance to work and build up a league is unusual in the modern football world."

Despite the professional league's late arrival, a relatively deep heritage exists among its clubs.

Manchester City's owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan - who also holds a 16.3% in Britain's second biggest bank, Barclays - is president at Abu Dhabi glamour club Al Jazira.

Their rivalries with neighbouring clubs from the capital such as Al Wadha, and sides from Dubai like Al Wasl and Al Ahli, along with Al Ain - the only UAE side to win the AFC Champions League title - have provided a growing level of competitiveness.

"Beforehand, it was slightly unprofessional and slightly sporadic," says Duncan Revie, whose famous late father Don left the England job to coach the UAE. "They are going to get it organised now."


More than 110m in total has been raised through sponsorship and TV rights.

"Previously it was zero. So this is good," says Gai.

Beyond the title sponsor, the UFL is also close to securing deals for extra partners and two suppliers.

We must build the capacity to attract better players

UFL chief executive Romy Gai

And there will now - crucially - be an active central source from which money is distributed.

"This means we have the possibility to raise more money on behalf of the clubs and be able to give it them back," Gai enthuses.

"The clubs will now have much more money to invest, resulting in a better quality of football, which will mean more revenues."


"The UAE has good facilities; stadiums, coaches, and the rest. But what is missing? The main factors is players," AFC president Bin Hamman, the most powerful man in football on the world's most populated continent, told BBC Sport.

Bin Hamman questions the "mindset" of players in a country where football as a vocation can sometimes come second to other priorities.

"They eat when they want, drink when they want, sleep when they want," he says. "But this mindset will change."

The highest-profile UFL player is Brazil international Rafael Sobis, who in September joined Al Jazira in a five-year deal worth nearly 15m from Spanish side Real Betis, where he scored eight goals in 57 appearances.

Rafael Sobis and Ronaldinho
Sobis has made nine international appearances for Brazil

Other big names include Chilean international midfielder Jorge Valdivia, who plays for Al Ain after a 7m move from Brazilian giants Palmeiras.

Ultimately the UFL hopes to be able to lure the type of players that another Gulf state, gas-rich Qatar, was able to a do few years ago when Argentina striker Gabriel Batistuta, France World Cup winner Marcel Desailly and the Dutch De Boer twins headed to the Middle East.

"We don't want it to start big and then shrink," stresses Bin Hamman.

Revie warns the UAE should not throw money into trying to develop the league until there is a concrete plan.

"Until somebody sits down and says 'here's the 10-year plan, this is how the professional league will look in 2020', they are not going to progress quickly," he insists.


Striker Ismail Mattar, a national hero who plays for Abu Dhabi club Al Wadha, is the UAE's biggest star.

Voted player of the tournament at the 2003 World Youth Championship, he slipped back into the shadows for a few years, before leading the country to its first trophy - the 2007 Gulf Cup, scoring five goals in five games and picking up both the best player and top scorer trophies.

Don Revie
Don Revie became UAE coach after quitting as England manager in 1977

Brazilian side Vasco da Gama were rumoured to be interested in Mattar, but players moving clubs is almost unheard of: the all-powerful owners have, traditionally, been unwilling to let them go.

"We have some players with the quality to play in Europe," Al Jazira coach Ayed Al Hajeri, who works under Brazilian manager Adel Braga, told BBC Sport.

"But people in charge of the clubs don't understand, and are afraid to let them go. They are focused only on the club and fear they will miss a good player.

"It's good to give them the chance. They will come back with a lot of experience which will help the national team."

Yet many believe that with new rules allowing greater freedom of movement - Saif Mohammed's 1.8m September transfer to Al Ain from Al Shaab being seen as a landmark deal - a corner has been turned.

"Everything will change soon, they will be allowed to leave. It will help, even if it is to Qatari or Saudi leagues," insists Bin Hamman.

"It just needs one tiny breakthrough," adds Revie, who established his well-known Soccerex football business conference company in Dubai.

"They really do have very good players, but, at present, they don't have the tenacity or the will to win."


The UAE's population is a rare beast: Emirati's football-mad nationals make up only a tiny, ever-dwindling percentage while the biggest majority are from the Indian subcontinent.

"Most people who live in this country don't love football, but the UAE FA, and the clubs, are working very hard on this" says Al Jazira coach Al Hajeri.

The level of attendance (and manic, obsessive atmosphere) at high-profile cricket events which take place in the emirates of Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi tells its own story.

"I think the biggest challenge they face will be to get people to come and pay money through the gate to watch the games," says Revie.

Hordes of western expatriate communities, meanwhile, are busy watching the Premier League in bustling bars across the nation's cities.

Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and Fifa president Sepp Blatter
The younger generation [of Sheikhs] have a mad passion for football - much more so than the the older brethren who are still into more into their horse racing, powerboating and golf

Duncan Revie

Revie is adamant that football will grow because of the new generation of younger Sheikhs who are gradually being given more power in a country which is working hard to implement democratic processes.

"They have everything else, but they haven't got football," he said.

"They are now waking up to that and the investment in Man City, and probably other clubs, will help bring that along.

"The two sons of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum [Ruler of Dubai and UAE prime minister], Sheikh Hamdan and Sheikh Rashid, are absolutely mad keen: not only as fans, but also as players.

"The younger generation has a mad passion for it, unlike the older generation who are still into their horse racing, powerboating, and golf.

"Having said that, I know that Sheikh Mohammed's sons are Man United fans, and I don't think they are for sale are they?!"


For the past five years Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been embarking upon what represents probably the biggest marketing drive in the world.

Sport has played a large part, with huge golf and rugby sevens tournaments taking place there and a new Formula One circuit set to be used as the climax to the 2009 season.


Creating a decent football league, along with prolifically spending millions on footballers to fire Manchester City into the big time, is a continuation of that.

"They will be doing this for a reason, whether it's a combination of PR and diversification into football," says Revie."

"They have become aware that football is the biggest and greatest game in the world.

"It wouldn't surprise me if they've got their eyes on pitching for a World Cup in the future."


Greater exposure for the UAE national team on a global scale will have to wait: adding to their one solitary World Cup appearance (1990) is unlikely at South Africa 2010, as they currently sit bottom of their Asian qualifying group.

But, crucially, its footballers are now playing in a domestic league which is far stronger than it had ever been before and a select few could make pioneering moves abroad.

Al Hajeri, a proud UAE national himself, insists the demand is there.

"Everybody here watches the Spanish league, Serie A and the Premier League," he says.

"But they also want a good quality of football here in our own country."

William Gallas in an Emirates-sponsored Arsenal shirt
Emirates airline has its brand across many of sport's biggest names

"And [the City deal] will help: we can make agreements for them to come and play here and maybe even send some of our players to train with their youth set-up, which I know is the best in England."

The key question, however, is one that is relevant in both the case of the nation's new professional football league and Abu Dhabi's cash-fuelled acquisition and management of Manchester City.

Are they in for the long haul?

"Maybe [the purchase of Manchester City] will help with the image of the country?" speculated AFC boss Bin Hamman, when asked about its impact by BBC Sport in October.

The sceptics who mention the 'silly' money they are throwing at the game might argue otherwise and perhaps, in that, there are lessons to be learnt.

Unless Robinho, Bellamy and co lead City into the Champions League as Premier League champions in 2014 before moving to play in the UFL to help develop it for their Arab friends.

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see also
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Bellamy relishing Man City future
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Man City 'must up' Santa Cruz bid
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Bridge seals transfer to Man City
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Premier League agrees Asia link
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Hughes to hold City owner talks
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Country profile: United Arab Emirates
07 Nov 08 |  Country profiles
Arabian might at Eastlands
02 Sep 08 |  Man City
New owners for City
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Arab group agrees Man City deal
01 Sep 08 |  Man City
Manchester City take over
01 Sep 08 |  England

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