The foreign takeover of the Arabian Gulf League

Only one player from the UAE has been featured as a top scorer after 1998

Krikor Yeretzian

Published: Updated:

Similar to the MLS and Chinese Super League in more ways than one, the AGL is the top division in UAE football, and has, since its founding in 1973, offered a competitive game to the Gulf. The most obvious similarity are the rules constraining the overflow of foreign players, although the AGL clubs aren’t just focusing on past-their-prime players.

On the other hand, Emirati footballers have less chances to shine than they did before. Between 1983 and 1998, the season’s top scorer was always a player from the UAE. Ever since then, only one UAE player has been featured as a top scorer. This says something about the lower level of talent local players have, and the higher expectations the coaches have for foreign players.

The AGL has not only invested in foreign players, but in coaches as well, as the league saw the likes of Maradona and Cannavaro coaching Al Wasl and Al Ahli. This could be to increase the talent and tactics seen in Gulf football, but it could as well serve a purpose similar to that of using foreign players: to attract attention.

Foreign players who have stolen the spotlight

Asamoah Gyan

Asamoah Gyan, the Ghanian international, was top scorer of the AGL for three consecutive years. He is also the 7th all-time top scorer of the league, but could’ve easily made it to the top if he had extended his stay in the UAE. Fahad Khamees and Mohammad Omar, number 1 and 2, have played for around 20 years each, whereas Gyan played for around four years, only. He had a run at European football, playing for Udinese, Rennes and Sunderland, before moving east to the UAE and now China. Ironically, Shanghai SIPG bought him from Al Ain, only to send him back on loan to Al Ahli.

Anderson Barbosa

The only player to surpass Gyan’s three-year top scorer streak is Anderson Barbosa, who did it for four years. From 2004 to 2008, no one was scoring like Barbosa was, except for Valdir and Faisal Khalil, who had an equal amount of goals at the top of the table, in 2004 and 2007, respectively. Faisal Khalil is the only UAE national to feature on this list for the past 15 years, leading to a big discrepancy between the number of UAE footballers in the AGL, and the number of UAE footballers featured as top scorer over the years. Barbosa, having won all 4 of his top scorer awards with Al-Sharjah, previously played for a few clubs in Brazil, before making his move to the UAE.

André Senghor

Finally, one of, if not the, youngest players to be a top scorer in the Arabian Gulf League, the Senegalese André Senghor. Ending the 2010/11 season with 18 goals, he was named top scorer that year, in what happened to be his first season at Baniyas. This is the type of player the AGL should be looking for, preferably a bit higher profile, as he will score goals, add to the quality of the game, and increase the attention the league gets. These players shouldn’t have too big a price tag, and have a good six years left in them, thus able to instigate change in the league, and follow up on it.

Rules, targets, and saturation

Most foreign players in the Arabian Gulf League come from South America, especially from Brazil. Looking at this season’s foreign players list, there are 12 Brazilian players, with Argentina coming in second with 4 players. This shows that the Brazilians are happy playing in the UAE, and who blames them, as their countrymen have been top scorers in seven seasons.

Every team is allowed up to four foreign players, with at least one being an AFC player; that is, born in Asia or Australia. This quota is saturated, consequently adding 56 foreign players into the league. Most, excluding a few, are relatively unheard of, and many haven’t had any international experience other than in their home country. The players should be filtered according to international experience, because regardless of the slight bump in price, they will add to the quality of football in the league.

There are several reasons to introduce foreign players, not just for the benefit of the team, as several clubs have been doing. Teams should focus on bringing in several players of a higher caliber, that can add to the complexity and intensity of the league. After that, Emirati, and new, players should be trained to that standard, and there you have it, an interesting league, filled to the brim with talent, competition, and excitement.