Middle East becoming a graveyard for Socceroos (JMD quoted in The Guardian)
Middle East becoming a graveyard for Socceroos
Plying their trade is the Middle East is becoming an increasingly risky career choice for aspiring Socceroos
Alex Brosque plays for UAE Pro-League side Al Ain FC and was overlooked by Ange Postecoglou in his first Socceroos squad. Photograph: Joe Castro/AAP Image
The danger signs were there, long before being hit for six by Brazil and France. Guus Hiddink is said to have forecast a bumpy road ahead for the Socceroos after their exit from the 2006 World Cup, and the lacklustre manner of their qualification for Brazil 2014 seemed to prove his point. Another red light: the number of first-choice Socceroos kicking around in the Gulf of late.
"There are no top players in their prime who can command the market who will go there,” says James M Dorsey, an academic and expert on football and politics in the Middle East. “There’s no reason for them to.”
Asamoah Gyan might take exception to that. Ghana’s gun striker plays alongside Alex Brosque at Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates. But glamour signings like Gyan or one-time Real Madrid star Raul, who made the move to Qatar last year, belie leagues heaving with top-class, or once top-class, talent.
“A typical team [in the UAE] is made up of local players propped up by three foreigners, mainly strikers, who can barely see the ball for the dollar signs in their eyes,” reported English website When Saturday Comes in 2010. “The imports usually score a hatful of goals without breaking sweat, the local players stand in awe.”
Things are a little different in the Qatar Stars League, where the likes of Mark Bresciano, Lucas Neill, Harry Kewell, Sasa Ognenovski and Matthew Spiranovic have all found themselves in recent years. The Qataris, says Dorsey, are playing the long game, using their Aspire Academy to groom young players from across the Middle East and Africa. Foreign players with solid international careers, experience in major tournaments and a considerable (if not enviable) record in Europe are a much rarer sighting.
At current Qatar table-toppers Al Sailiya, the list of star imports runs two deep: an Africa Cup of Nations finalist from Burkina Faso and a striker with a handful of caps for the DR Congo. The rest of the team is made up of low-profile foreigners and players drawn from the Qatar’s tiny talent pool - it has a population of just over 2 million, the vast majority of which are foreign workers. Its national team is ranked 105th in the world.
Ange Postecoglou isn’t a fan of the leagues either. He picked just one Gulf-based player, Bresciano, in his inaugural squad last week, and spoke frankly about the quality of football being played there. “It is a slower pace and we want to play a high-intensity, high-tempo kind of game.”
His predecessor, Holger Osieck, was also sceptical. He pointed to Gulf-based players’ lack of fitness as one of the reasons for the recent thumping in Brasilia, and he’d been worried about the trend of players moving there for some time.
As a place to make some good coin on your way home from Europe, the Gulf makes a lot of sense for an ageing Socceroo. But as a place to demand selection for the World Cup squad? It’s turning out to be more like a career graveyard for Socceroos.
Take Brosque. He moved from Sydney FC to Japan in early 2011, and by the end of the year, had made himself a regular in the green and gold. In late 2012 he moved to the Gulf, and within six months, stopped getting calls - or at least the kind you’d like to get - from the national boss.
"The fact that he is now a starter in our team is based on his development in the Japanese league,” Osieck said at the time of his move. “Football-wise I'd rather have him in Europe or maybe even in Japan … I'd rather have players in a more competitive environment."
The story of Spiranovic, now of the Western Sydney Wanderers, follows almost the exact pattern, as does that of Ognenovski, after his omission from Postecoglou’s squad.
Captain Lucas Neill played in the Gulf too, with some blessing from Osieck - “There's a lot of Brazilian players, predominantly strikers, so I think he's going to be tested" - though perhaps he can thank his move to the J-League for saving his spot.
Then there’s Brett Holman. After many successful years in the Dutch top grade, Holman moved to English Premier League club Aston Villa last season. At 29, with more than 60 caps, he was just the type of player the Socceroos needed to fill the boots of the ageing Golden Generation. In the off-season he moved to Al-Nasr in the UAE. He was part of the humiliation in Brazil, was injured for the rout in Paris and now has been axed by Postecoglou.
Moving to the Gulf is, says Dorsey, “an opportunity to end [your] career in a comfortable way.” But the standard of play isn’t the only issue he sees. He cites the case of French player Zahir Belounis, who claims to have been trapped in Qatar for years due to a contractual dispute with his club, as an example of the conditions facing those who move to the Gulf.
Then there’s the fan culture and stadium environment there. Little Maracanas, these ain’t. “If you go to a stadium in the UAE or Qatar, it is by and large empty,” says Dorsey, who is also a co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture at Germany’s University of Wuerzburg.
“If you’ve got 85 per cent [of the population made up of foreign] labour and you want to maintain control of your country and your identity, you are really worried about all of these 85 per cent thinking they are at home. So you go out of your way to ensure people understand that they are there for a period of time, to fulfill a contract, whatever that may be, and then after that they are out.
“The one thing you are concerned about is that people form roots, forge bonds. And one way of forging bonds is of course being associated, involved, emotionally tied to a soccer team.”
Still, clubs in Qatar and the UAE can point to the Asian Champions League as proof they offer more competitive leagues than their counterparts in Australia. Those two Gulf states earned seven ACL spots between them last season; the A-League’s presence was reduced to just one.