Cashed-up UAE clubs the new haven for ageing Socceroos?

by Ben Somerford on Aug 10, 2011

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When Australia moved into the Asian Football Confederation in 2006 it all seemed too good to be true. More matches for the national team and a better route to the World Cup. A proper Champions League for our domestic clubs and more sponsorship and corporate exposure and opportunites at all levels.

However, nothing's perfect and the player drain we've seen of Australians to Asian leagues has been a negative, with talent heading for Korea, Japan and China.

But yesterday's events took that to new levels, with Australian midfielder Mark Bresciano arriving in Dubai to sign with UAE club Al Nasr, Socceroos skipper Lucas Neill being heavily linked with Abu Dhabi club Al Jazira and Harry Kewell rumoured to be talking with Al Ahli.

Three of Australia's highest profile players over the past decade all pondering a move to UAE on the same day? Incredible.

The stories set off a backlash of opinions, with many fans on internet forums and blogs bemoaning the lack of spirit in these potential moves, as those players could instead return to Australia to play in the A-League and 'put something back into the game'.

Of course, the lure for this trio to move to the UAE is money. And the kind of money we're talking about the A-League simply can not compete with.

Personally, I think it's fair to be disappointed these players aren't all returning to the A-League but you can't begrudge them for chasing a good deal, as football is their job and their careers don't go forever.

However, the essence of the point here, is that it's no coincidence that three UAE clubs have suddenly turned their attention to top Australian players.

These moves come following changes to the way the UAE top flight has been run recently, with the local Football Association taking over the governing of the league last month and making a series of changes.

Among those changes, was the introduction of the 3+1 foreign quota rule which means all clubs can sign four foreigners, but one must come from the AFC region. Previously UAE clubs were simply allowed to sign four foreigners from anywhere.

This rule had been introduced to the AFC Champions League two years ago, along with East Asian leagues. However, the UAE are only now complying to those rules in their own domestic league.

As a result, the unique qualities which Australia's players showed at the 2011 Asian Cup are being sought by cashed-up UAE clubs, who want to use their foreign quota to add something special and different to their squads.

Instead of using that AFC foreigner spot for another similar type player from a nearby Middle East nation, these clubs are turning to East Asia and Australia for unique talent and an extra spark.

The alarming thing is the East Asian clubs in Japan, Korea and China are better equipped financially to compensate such players and as a result fend off this kind of interest. That's alarming for the A-League as it simply can not compete with the financial rewards on offer in the UAE.

One of the fundamentals behind the A-League was to bring home ageing Socceroos before they retired in order to give 'something back to the game' but this development goes directly against those aims.

And the UAE isn't alone in creating this peril for the A-League, with a lot of money being poured into Chinese football (where they already use the 3+1 rule) in the recent transfer market.

Central Coast's Alex Wilkinson just completed a loan stint with Chinese club Jiangsu Sainty and in a story on the Mariners' website yesterday, he said: “Clubs are allowed an extra Asian player in their squads over there, so many of the teams are looking to take advantage of using Aussie players.”

There's been a steady stream of A-League players heading to China over the past few years, but when you ponder Guangzhou Evergrande signed Argentine Dario Conca last month for a reported transfer fee of €10 million on a two-and-a-half year contract worth €26.5m, you begin to realise we're talking Middle East sized bucks. Again, it's difficult for the A-League to compete.

However, what the A-League has going for it is the lifestyle in Australia and the competition's current standard of play, arguably better than the nUAE Pro-League and Chinese Super League.

But money talks, especially when we're talking big bucks and this could be an increasing issue for the A-League to tackle.