Has anyone here ever watched a game in Abu Dhabi? Anyone ever flown over to Dubai to catch Al-Ahli versus Al-Shabab in the derby? If not, why do so many Australian fans think it’s okay to denigrate Gulf football over Lucas Neill’s potential move to Al-Jazira?
Neill’s expected transfer to the Abu Dhabi-based side has dragged on for over a week.
The protracted affair continues to fuel hopes the Sydney-born defender could turn his back on a major payday in the Gulf in favour of a return to the A-League.
He’d be a hero if he did, judging by online sentiment.
Conversely, some of the vitriol posted on messageboards across the country says much about the xenophobia lurking beneath Australia’s multicultural veneer.
Comments about playing for “FC Durka Durka,” statements linking his prospective new club to Al-Qaeda and demands for Neill to be dropped from the national team for being “money hungry” reek of a big-island country with a small-man mentality.
But looking beyond the casual racism, my question to anyone with a steadfast opinion on football in the Gulf is this: have you ever actually seen a game?
I know I’ve never seen a UAE Pro-League game in full and I try hard to follow leagues all across Asia.
One man who has seen plenty of football in the Gulf is Young Socceroos coach Jan Versleijen, who twice coached Al-Jazira and was more recently in charge of Saudi club Al-Wehda.
If so many Australian fans felt so strongly about the quality of Gulf football at the time, why didn’t they criticise Football Federation Australia upon Versleijen’s appointment to the national set-up?
Is it because they didn’t know the first thing about the Gulf, its people or its football?
Living in an age with limitless information at our fingertips, it seems a shame so many are willing to forgo this educational opportunity in favour of making lazy, ill-informed statements about cultures they know little about.
I’m not defending the quality of football in the Gulf because quite frankly, I haven’t seen it.
But a quick glance at the Al-Jazira squad reveals they’ve got ex-Brazilian international Ricardo Oliveira on their books, as well as Argentine midfielder and former Besiktas fan-favourite Matias Delgado.
They’ve also got former Gamba Osaka goal machine Baré – who once ran out against Melbourne Victory in the AFC Champions League – and a host of current and former UAE internationals, including one of the most decorated of all, Subait Khater.
And last night former Belgium coach Frank Vercauteren left his club Racing Club Genk to sign on as coach at Al-Jazira.
That’s right, a man who spent his entire managerial career in Belgium left a club currently competing in the UEFA Champions League to take over as coach in what is supposed to be a “Mickey Mouse league.”
Of course money played a role!
Vercauteren wouldn’t be a professional if he didn’t command market rates for his services.
And the same can be said of Australian veterans Lucas Neill and new Al-Nasr signing Mark Bresciano.
But they don’t “owe” Australian football anything.
They’re professional footballers who are entitled to command the salaries afforded to them.
If that means turning their back on the A-League, so be it. We’ll find replacements.
However, it does nothing for our credibility within the Asian Football Confederation when fans go around making inflammatory remarks about leagues they don’t understand.
And while Socceroos coach Holger Osieck might not think the Gulf leagues are up to scratch, he’s at least seen some teams in action – not least because Al-Wahda made the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League the year Osieck’s Urawa Reds won it.
At the end of the day, football offers us the ability to embrace other cultures and learn more about the world we live in.
If that means a few more Australians can pinpoint Abu Dhabi on a map, so much the better.