The same question is always posed of every big-name player lured to the Arabian Gulf League: to what extent do they really want to be there? It’s natural for any developing league to ponder the true intent of new arrivals, and Emirati football has had more reason than most to do so recently.
With Nigerian striker Emmanuel Emmenike and former Liverpool winger Ryan Babel failing to live up to expectations at Al Ain this season, club board member Mohammed Obeid Hamdoun publicly questioned the commitment of both players. The Abu Dhabi side look set to cast off the two foreign stars who will surely look back at their time in the United Arab Emirates with regret.
“This is normal in football. Sometimes big names and big players come and don’t do anything here, this can happen in any team,” Obeid Hamdoun said last week. “Sometimes you bring one big name and he doesn’t want to play – that’s my opinion on Babel and Emenike. I think they didn’t want to play here.
“I saw Emenike in the World Cup with Nigeria and he was a good player. But when he came here he scored only seven goals. With the local players we have here? Enough.” And so with Obeid Hamdoun’s remarks in mind, it appears Al Ain will soon undergo a change of tact. The big names - like Babel and Emmenike - might not pitch up there for much longer.
So how does the Arabian Gulf League and its member clubs ensure that the same mistakes aren’t made when dipping their toes into the international transfer market in future? How do general managers and coaches identify the players who will only waste their time? It could require a more holistic approach across the entire division.
If Emirati clubs remain intent on bolstering their standing in the transfer market, supplementing what the country’s improving talent pool can already provide them, then perhaps a new ethos is needed. Because at present, the Arabian Gulf League’s current blueprint has produced only mixed results. The division could be much more efficient.
Of course, much of a club’s success in the transfer market depends on the quality and thoroughness of scouting. Without the necessary research, it’s impossible to make an informed decision on the prosperity or suitability of a player - regardless of what they have previously achieved in their careers. Too often teams are blinded by shimmering reputation and glittering resumes.
Instead Arabian Gulf League clubs must find players who have their best years ahead of them, rather than behind him. They need young, promising talents on an upward arc to in turn raise the standing of the country’s top-flight. Such players are motivated, committed and everything Babel and Emmenike supposedly are not. The Emirati game should look to hang on to the coat-tails of football’s brightest talents.
Indeed, pretty much every team in every league around the world is looking for such players, but most sides are wise enough to avoid those who are only after a pay-cheque. In the past Emirati teams have been taken advantage of by such players, with the likes of Babel and Emmenike only in the UAE for the money.
This doesn’t mean that Arabian Gulf League clubs can’t have big-name players, it just means that must find the right big-name players. However, Emirati football’s arms race means that sometimes the temptation is simply too strong. It might take a division-wide effort to develop the UAE game for the better of everyone, as implausible as that may seem right now.
Until that happens though there will be most likely be more Babels and Emmenikes. More than a few undeserved pay-cheques will be handed out before the Arabian Gulf League collectively adopts a new approach. Obeid Hamdoun’s comments may have, on the face of things, appeared unduly harsh, but their lasting impact might be much kinder on Emirati football.