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May 19, 2012

Progressive Al Jazira are UAE pioneers

They won the title with Sheikh Mansour's money. The next target was the Champions League, a competition that had brought a first-round exit the year before. This time it was easy as they won the group with a game to spare. Those continental commitments didn't help the club's attempts to defend their domestic title, however, and soon they were out of contention at the top. Overall, though, progress continues to be made.

That's not the near-future for Manchester City - the newly-crowned English champions have not, so far at least, given away Ferraris during their half-time draw - but the present for Al Jazira, the Sheikh's other and original club. Despite the giving away of luxury cars, the UAE champions are no sultans of bling. This is a well-run, forward-thinking club aiming to become a regional powerhouse.

Until now, the scene from the western side of the giant continent has been dominated by the big boys from Iran and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh, Jeddah, Tehran and even Doha have donned the Asian club crown in the past but now Abu Dhabi has its eyes on a piece of the action.

Sheikh Mansour may have attended only one Manchester City match in the four seasons since taking control but he is a regular attendee at Al Jazira and takes a more hands-on role. He intervened earlier this year to get the UAE League to reschedule a fixture amid Asian Champions League commitments. The league was only too happy to oblige. After all, this is the man who aims to put the club and the UAE on the Asian football map.

Around the continent, the league, which went professional in 2008, is best-known for getting through coaches at an insane rate. For a rough, if admittedly exaggerated idea, think of the past few days in the English Premier League with the dismissals of Alex McLeish and Kenny Dalglish and then imagine that happening every week.

In the first three seasons in the professional era, there were more than 40 coaching changes, and this, remember, in a 12-team division. "I know that in this part of the world it is common to replace the coach when things don't go your way," Carlo Nohra, the-then chief executive of the Pro League, told Abu Dhabi daily The National in 2011. "I fail to understand the reason for this. It's all about a plan and perseverance and when you have a plan to see it through. Football here is handled on an emotional level to a large degree."

Al Jazira bucked the trend and then started a new one. The club stuck with coach Abel Braga, not for three months - as Al Ahli did with David O'Leary - but for three seasons. At the end of that timeframe, the Brazilian delivered the title, the first in the club's 37-year history. Success wasn't built on getting the biggest or most glamorous names but on combining experienced and solid pros such as Lucas Neill, talented South Americans such as Ricardo Oliveira and good local talent.

This philosophy of patience over glamour and vision over image was pioneered by Phil Anderton. Headhunted by the owner for the chief executive position in January 2010 after similar roles in Scotland with Hearts and the Scottish Rugby Union, Anderton's plan was long-term. "The most important thing is getting in players who perform, not some big name who is perhaps in the final months of his career and past his sell-by date," the Scot said in 2011. "It also doesn't bring the crowds in. And the young Emirati players will think, 'why is this guy getting paid millions when they are not really doing it'."

With attendances negligible around a country that had little culture of going to watch a game at a football ground, even one as comfortable as Al Jazira's futuristic Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, Anderton, with the support of Sheikh Mansour, reached out to the local and sizeable expat community, something that clubs in the country had never really done before. The league didn't enjoy much of a reputation among foreign residents but by patient branding, promotions and, of course, success on the pitch, the club became by far the best supported in the league, averaging around 15,000 in its 2011 title-winning season - five times the national standard.

One of the weaknesses of Asian football is that because many teams are owned by wealthy benefactors, businesses or governments, the incentive to try and turn off-the-field activities into something resembling an efficient business is often just not there. With Sheikh Mansour at the helm, it would be easy to think that Al Jazira simply didn't have to care so much about money coming in, but Anderton made sure that wasn't the case. Soon revenue streams from sponsorship and merchandising - as well as the good old fashioned ticket sales - began to flow.

It is a legacy that has been taken up elsewhere. When Nohra left the league to become chief executive of Al Ain, he quickly declared that he intended to follow Al Jazira's example. "The focus will very much be on marketing and promotions and the revenue side so we reach a point where the club is standing on its own two feet. It's a long-term objective, but we will give it a start."

Al Jazira have not matched last year's heroics in the league. The club was never really in a title race dominated by Al Ain and the free-scoring Asamoah Gyan. In Asia, though, it has been a different story. The fact that the UAE has enjoyed a healthy allocation of Asian Champions League spots has been a source of consternation for some as, apart from Al Ain, who won the 2003 title and reached the final in 2005, the nation has had little impact on the competition.

Al Jazira was a big a culprit as any. In 18 previous games in the tournament, just one ended in victory. That changed in 2012. It should be said that the group was relatively weak but the team won five and drew the other, scoring 18 goals in total. In Asia, more than the European version, anything can happen in the knockout stage - especially as some of the eastern powerhouses are already out or have yet to impress - but even so, the title looks beyond this team. That is not a problem as it is a long-term project. A place in the last eight would be a considerable success and lay down markers for future appearances.

Though Anderton departed a few months after Braga at the end of 2011, the philosophy at the club remains the same. Sheikh Mansour remains in control and, if Al Jazira are anything to go by, that can only be good for those fans of Manchester City who are enjoying life at the top.

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