DUBAI (Reuters) - Football is awash with Gulf money, yet the region’s teams will again be absent from the World Cup due to constant managerial changes and players’ lack of experience of foreign leagues.
For the 2014 tournament, Oman and Qatar made the last group stage of Asian qualifying but Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates suffered abject campaigns, winning only six of 24 games after the preliminary round.
Their poor showing contrasts with that of Jordan who will play the first game on Wednesday of a two-leg playoff with Uruguay for a place at the finals in Brazil.
“If you look at our region, we have probably the least amount of resources going into our sport, but we are the only ones from our region who are actually at this stage, so I‘m optimistic,” Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, head of the Jordan Football Association, told Reuters.
The Gulf has a contradictory relationship with football. On one hand, it appears football-mad - Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup and, together with the UAE, has invested billions of dollars in the European game.
Many regional companies have paid handsomely to associate themselves with clubs like Barcelona and Manchester United.
Yet there is scant interest in the local leagues, few Gulf players have made a mark internationally and the small native populations - Saudi Arabia apart - suggest the region is in for a prolonged struggle.
Perhaps the main problem is that almost all Gulf national team players represent regional clubs.
“Playing in your own backyard, you can only go so far - when you get into the Premier League or other big European leagues you learn so many tricks, like how to handle pressure situations - it’s not about the players’ technique,” said John Burridge, a Gulf-based coach credited with unearthing Ali al-Habsi, the Omani goalkeeper at England’s Wigan Athletic.
The short-termism of the national football associations - Qatar, Saudi and the UAE have employed about 40 managers combined this century - has also proved detrimental, said Sebastião Lazaroni, Qatar’s coach in 2011-12 and now in charge of local side Qatar SC.
“The national team has problems because they (Qatar FA) change coaches too quickly and not just the first team, but at all levels,” he said.
Saudi Arabia has largely entrusted the national team to foreign coaches but few last long, whatever their passport.
“We have to find the right coaches and stick with them for at least four years no matter what, but that seems to be very hard,” said Hafez al-Medlej, a senior member of the Saudi FA for 12 years. “The laziest decision is to sack the coach and then start all over again with a new one.”
Qatar has a population of about 2 million, of which only about 15 percent are locals. This has prompted the world’s richest country per capita to recruit foreign players from the domestic league for the national team.
Gulf countries rarely give citizenship to expatriate residents, but Qatar has made an exception for footballers and five of the starting 11 in its final World Cup qualifier - a 5-1 defeat to Uzbekistan - were originally of foreign origin.
“This is a right of every single federation,” said Mansour al-Ansari, managing director of Qatar’s national team committee.
“We give every player that plays in the league the chance to represent Qatar. Why am I going to limit my talent pool? That doesn’t mean all our football clubs are filled with people that are nationalized - we have a lot of Qatari players.”
Among those appearing against Uzbekistan were defender Mohammed Kasola, 28, originally from Ghana, Ibrahim Abdulmajed, 23, born in Kuwait of Palestinian descent, and Mosaab El Hassan, 30, from Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.
Ex-coach Lazaroni said the abundance of live football matches on television in the Gulf - most on Qatar-owned Al Jazeera - hinders attempts to attract fans to local matches.
Such lack of interest may worry FIFA ahead of 2022 although Ansari insisted Qataris were behind their national team, which usually plays at the 14,000-capacity Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium.
“It’s our goal to get people into the stadiums because we do want people to come and enjoy the game,” said Ansari.
He said the Qatar FA was “working heavily” towards creating a competitive team for its hosting of the World Cup, citing the under-19 and under-16 teams which have qualified for the 2014 Asian Cups in their age groups.
“These are my players for 2022,” said Ansari.
The last few years have been lean for Saudi Arabia whose population of 28 million dwarfs that of its Gulf neighbors.
The three-times Asian champions qualified for four World Cup finals from 1994 to 2006, but have slumped to 101 in the world rankings from 21 in 2004.
“We used to have long training camps - usually they would go to Brazil or Europe for months and we would play the league without national team players,” said former FA official Medlej.
“The federation was stronger so the clubs couldn’t complain, but with more professionalism the clubs gained power and they want to adopt FIFA rules (on player releases).”
All of the Saudi squad play in the domestic league.
“The players are not 100 percent professional in terms of their training, eating, sleeping and so on, so when they come to the national team from different clubs it is very difficult to have them at the same level,” said Medlej.
Bahrain’s national team coach Anthony Hudson has similar gripes but he remains confident his team will qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup.
“I don’t have the players for a lot of time, so it’s just prioritizing your training and the points you want to get across in the time you have with them,” Hudson said.
Yousuf al-Serkal, UAE Football Association president, said the domestic league’s purpose was to improve the national team, whose solitary appearance at the World Cup finals came in 1990.
Clubs must release players 12 days before a competitive international match - more than double the FIFA minimum.
This has helped the UAE rise to 71 in FIFA’s rankings, the top-rated Gulf country, but Emiratis have more affinity with European clubs such as Real Madrid.
The average attendance for the UAE’s home World Cup qualifiers was 7,542, the lowest in the Gulf. The team lost all but one match in a group including unfancied Kuwait and Lebanon.
The team have improved, though, and is unbeaten in 14 matches since September 2012 although Uzbekistan, 55 in FIFA’s rankings, was their top-rated opponent in this run.
“Our goal is to create a team where if a person is asked who is the best in Asia to immediately think the UAE, Japan, (South) Korea,” said Serkal.
That may be hard to achieve - South Korea is the only Asian nation to reach the World Cup semi-finals while Japan has won three of the past four Asian titles. Both have populations that dwarf the UAE which is home to about 1 million Emiratis.
“It is tough,” said Serkal. “On the positive side, we don’t have a vast area where we need to travel and look for players. We have a program for this team to develop more.”
Reporting by Matt Smith in Dubai; additional reporting by Patrick Johnston in Singapore; editing by Robert Woodward