Everything in Emirati football in recent years has been viewed through the prism of the national team and its fortunes. The correlation between the Arabian Gulf League, the country’s grassroots game and Mahdi Ali’s team is well established, with one’s success directly benefiting the other - and vice versa.
Indeed, there has been plenty to herald about the state of football in the United Arab Emirates in recent years - from the national team’s third place finish at the 2015 Asian Cup to Al Ahli’s run to the AFC Champions League final last season. Attention has already turned to the next generation, though.
AGL clubs are now finding pride in their respective youth ranks, boasting over which has the brightest and best talent. Al Jazira defender Musallem Fayez believes his team possesses the highest quality crop of young prospects, and he hasn’t held back in saying so.
“We have good young players. We have a dream to play with them for Al Jazira,” he explained last week. “Maybe after two seasons I think they will become the best players in the UAE. Inshallah they will keep getting better, but I think the fans and the club have to be patient with them.
“They are playing in the team and sometimes they will play very good, but it is a lot of pressure for young players to deal with. Maybe they don’t play many games and then they play one game but don’t play again for a while, like Saif Khalfan, who has not played for a while. Against Al Ain he played and he played very well for 45 minutes. I think they will get better and their time will come, God willing.”
Fayez is right to endorse the quality of Al Jazira’s youth ranks. They have one of the youngest cores in the Arabian Gulf League, with first-team figures Sultan Al Shamsi, Saif Khalfan, Khalfan Mubarak and Salim Rashed all under the tender age of 23. The future certainly looks to be bright for the Abu Dhabi club.
Sitting in seventh place, Al Jazira are some way short of where they might have hoped to be this season. But given the upheaval at the club over the course of the campaign, with Henk Ten Cate appointed as manager and Gianluca Nani hired as sporting director, their performance so far must be qualified.
Al Jazira have long placed an emphasis on youth development, with former head coach Abel Braga often speaking about the importance of the next generation to the Abu Dhabi side. It’s something Ten Cate has taken on board too, even if some of the aforementioned crop have had to bide their time somewhat.
Sultan Al Suwaidi has made the best impression since the appointment of the former Barcelona and Ajax boss, turning out 18 times for the first-team this season. Others like Khalfan have seen their progress stunted, either through injuries or a lack of consistency. But nonetheless, there is undoubted promise and talent underpinning the Al Jazira set-up. Young players develop most through their experiences, and the Spiders’ youngsters have experienced plenty of late.
The Abu Dhabi club possess a certain pedigree as a breeding ground of Emirati talent, with current national team striker Ali Mabkhout coming through the Ali Jazira youth system. It’s largely why Nani was sought so keenly for the position of sporting director at the club, given his background in bringing through such stars like Andrea Pirlo and Luca Toni at Brescia in Italy.
Bringing through the next generation of national team players is now a task seemingly embraced by Nani, Ten Cate and the organization as a whole. As Fayez says, Al Jazira’s youthful crop presents the vanguard of Emirati football’s future. Such an objective now forms a significant part of the club’s identity.