ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — In international soccer, the United Arab
Emirates is looking good. The national team finished third at the 2015
Asian Cup continental tournament, and it is stocked with the country’s
golden generation of players. The team has a real chance of qualifying for
the 2018 World Cup.
The 14-team Arabian Gulf League, which professionalized in 2008, is now
regarded as one of the best in Asia. One of the clubs, Al Ahli of Dubai,
reached the final of the Asian Champions League last year.
Yet the league still struggles to attract fans, and it is now facing twin
threats from the rise of Qatar and China in global soccer that threaten to
knock the Emirates down the soccer ladder.
The Emirates, along with Qatar, was seen as a place for European and South
American stars to earn big, tax-free salaries in the twilight of their
careers. The captain of Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning team, Fabio
Cannavaro, ended his career in Dubai with Al Ahli, while David Trezeguet, a
member of France’s Cup winner in 1998, played briefly for Baniyas in Abu
Dhabi near the end of his career.
The A-list veterans now go to Major League Soccer, while the younger
talents who previously signed with Emirates clubs are heading to China and
a league that has spent around $285 million in the transfer market in
Not only have the most famous clubs in the Emirates been unable to compete
financially with the Chinese teams — a decline in oil prices hasn’t helped
— but a few have ended up selling to them. In July 2015, three years after
joining Al Ain of Abu Dhabi from the English Premier League team
Sunderland, Asamoah Gyan joined Shanghai S.I.P.G. for a transfer fee
thought to be around $25 million, at the time an Asian transfer record.
“Now U.A.E. teams are missing out on players who go to China. I remember a
few years ago seeing that big stars went to Abu Dhabi