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Big-money stories do Arab football a disservice

The Arabian Gulf League does have big money to spend on major players

Published: Updated:

Nobody is sure if Gervinho was serious. Did he really enter contract negotiations with Al-Jazira with demands that make Richie Rich look distinctly middle-class? Did he really ask for a helicopter and private beach to sign for the Emirati club?

Whether he did or not (Gervinho’s agent denies such reports), this kind of story - which quickly became a social media sensation – plays up to common misconceptions about football in the Gulf.

Al-Jazira reportedly balked at the Roma forward’s demands, but that will have done little to change the perception that these stories perpetuate. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) deserves more than to be viewed as mere pay-day destination for football’s fading stars.

The Arabian Gulf League does have big money to spend on major players. Al-Jazira might have stopped short of a trip to the helicopter dealership, but they did reportedly offer Gervinho a four-year deal worth €13 million ($14.3 million).

The same club’s current contract with Mirko Vucinic - last season’s Arabian Gulf League top scorer - is thought to pay the striker €6 million ($6.6 million) over three years.

However, judging the quality and prospects of the Arabian game on the basis of such deals does a disservice to the progression of the sport in the region. After all, Arabian Gulf League clubs are only permitted to sign five non-Emirati players per season, meaning the majority of squads have to consist of homegrown talent. It is not as if Gulf clubs are by-passing the development of their own game.

Grassroots

The entire premise of the Arabian Gulf League - and the region’s attitude toward football in general - focuses on grassroots improvement. “All of this, the league, the clubs, the entire set-up, is angled towards making the national team better,” said Roy Aitken, technical director of Al-Ahli.

The UAE “has achieved a lot in a very short space of time, and they want to translate that into sport. The pool of talent here is completely disproportionate to the population.”

Players such as Abdulaziz Hussain, considered a member of the UAE’s golden generation, have been given a chance to prove themselves against top-tier talent by the Arabian Gulf League. The same goes for Omar Abdulrahman, who could now use the division as a springboard to a career in Europe, with clubs in Spain and Italy reported to be monitoring the playmaker.

Signings such as Vucinic, Emmanuel Emenike (who has just signed for Al-Ain on loan from Fenerbahce) and Everton Ribeiro undoubtedly help create spectacle, something every sporting league needs. However, the bluster and hype that such transfers generate hardly reflects the true nature of the largely home-grown Arabian Gulf League.

Football’s increased cultivation in the UAE goes beneath the surface too. Grassroots football has developed greatly in the country over the past five years or so, with Barcelona and Real Madrid both operating children’s soccer schools there. The best clubs - without exception - view the region as an area for growth.

Gulf nations such as the UAE and Qatar are already powerhouses of the Asian game, as proven by their displays at recent Asian Cups. At this rate, the region could become a real cradle for the sport in the not-so-distant future.

If that does happen, however, the salaries of Vucinic, Emenike or Ribeiro will not have been a factor. The Arabian Gulf League’s top-tier transfer market movements and its grassroots focus are unrelated, regardless of the ignorant derision that is often directed the division’s way.

Gervinho, much like most of the footballing world, clearly had misconceptions over what exactly a move to the Gulf could offer him. The Ivorian would have stood a better chance of claiming such prizes on the Wheel of Fortune, rather than at the negotiating table with a football club.

Stories such as that of the former Arsenal forward’s collapsed move to the Arabian Gulf League demonstrate that within the footballing sphere, the UAE still has work to do in correcting misconceptions about itself. Al-Jazira at least played its part by scoffing at Gervinho’s preposterous demands. More of that might be required.