By Omar Al Raisi
Al Ain is my hometown and my club and I am proud to say it is the greatest club in the history of the UAE Pro-League with 10 league titles. It's also the only Pro-League club to win the Asian Champions League, too. But would I watch Al Ain or my other team, Chelsea, when they are both playing the same time? You guessed it: Chelsea hands down.
The popularity and global demand of the European leagues, specifically English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and Italy's Serie A has not helped make it any easier for the Pro-League to punch their stamp on the fans.
Ask any avid UAE football supporter if they follow another team and it’s almost impossible to find someone who doesn’t cheer for a European team. The popularity of the leagues in the old continent is such that the supporter's Pro League side has become their “other team”.
UAE-based Ahdaaf managing partner Anas Bukhash tells Goal.com: “I started supporting Arsenal when I was back in college in Boston. I started watching a bit of Premier League and the way the team played focusing on playing fast, attractive and on-the-floor attacking football was just great to watch. That’s the type of football I love to play myself."
Another UAE fan, Mohammad Al Bastaki, says: “My first encounter with Chelsea was in the popular video game ‘Winning Eleven’. I was a supporter since then, back in the days of legendary players like Gianfranco Zola, Bolo Zenden, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and Mario Melchiot. Chelsea are in my heart till the end."
|"When faced with the dilemma of watching their UAE or European club that are playing at the same time, it is no surprise that literally every fan that Goal.com talked to said they would put their local team second"|
It will be a long time until the Pro-League reaches the level of the Premier League or La Liga and most fans believe that's not even a question as it will never happen. It is the world-famous star players and the quality and skills of the football which attracts the fans here.
Another fan Mansoor Ahmed says: “I watched a game between Barcelona and Espanyol, at the time when Real Madrid were dominating La Liga, players like Ronaldinho, Ludovic Giuly really impressed me. Moreover I loved their coach’s attack-minded style of play. I loved the ‘total football’ of pass and move which these days is also known as 'tika-taka'. They went on to win the Champions League and I fell in love with Barcelona ever since."
When faced with the dilemma of watching their UAE or European club that are playing at the same time, it is no surprise that literally every fan that Goal.com talked to said they would put their local team second.
Mansoor Ahmed adds: “If Bani Yas and Barcelona are both on at the same time, I would definitely watch Barcelona’s game. It’s just the quality of the skills, the world’s best players and who would want to watch something else over Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta?”
However there are some with creative ideas.
Bukhash says: “I would bring two TVs to watch if Arsenal and a Pro-League game I want to see are playing at the same time.”
“I would bring two TVs to watch if Arsenal and a Pro-League game I want to watch are playing at the same time”
- Fan Anas Bukhash
The demand for the Premier league is very high in UAE and the Middle East, which led ADMC to buy exclusive rights for the region until the 2012-13 season. Qatari giant Al Jazeera Sports, who has the regional rights for La Liga, Serie A and all international games, have made a bid of £1 billion to have the exclusive rights of the Premier League after the 2012-13 term, such is the demand.
ADMC executive director of broadcast Karim Sarkis says: "The English Premier League is the most watched football league in the world and we are proud to bring it to our audiences. We are confident that we are launching a compelling offering that will provide enhanced accessibility and a high quality product at value-for-money for Premier League fans across the region."
For the Pro-League to have better demand among the supporters, they should go bigger. There have been rumours that the Pro-League Committee is considering adding two teams for next season to have a 14-club league, and talks have already taken place. But on the record, the committee won't confirm anything.
Upgrading to 14 teams is a great idea and a step forward commercially. It would also produce better competition, increased attendances, and more television and sponsorship deals.
Eighty per cent of the population in the UAE are expats and the Pro-League Committee should tap in to that market to promote the domestic competition among the fans. They should consider broadcasting games with English commentary. Even if it is only the highlights, every little push helps.