Abu Dhabi club Al Jazira has always acquitted itself honourably in local league and cup tournaments, but it has had to wait until 2011, a full 37 years since it was founded, to claim the biggest prize of them all: United Arab Emirates Pro-League champions.
And this historic achievement has been no fluke; to the delight of financiers and fans alike the league title was not the only trophy to grace their cabinet this season.
Doing the double
Al Jazira’s serene and steady progress to the top of the league table bore the hallmarks of a well-planned and focussed campaign, but from the outset plans were afoot to double the end of season celebrations by carrying off the UAE President’s Cup. By marshalling their resources the side were able to campaign effectively on two fronts, and on 11 April they ran out onto their home ground, Abu Dhabi’s Shaikh Zayed Stadium, to face Al Wahda in the President’s Cup Final. Despite their opponents’ formidable record in the tournament, Al Jazira refused to be cowed, inflicting a crushing 4-0 defeat to win the cup.
Winning the double is an impressive feat by any standards but just how dominant were the team from the island Emirate? Their campaign for the league title has seen two records broken to date with the chance of more to come. Most dramatically, they were the first side to seal the league title a full four weeks before their final game of the season. Then having beaten Al Wasl 4-0 away Al Jazira returned home to face Al Ittihad Kalba, scoring five goals before their jubilant fans and extending their unbeaten run to 27 games, surpassing the previous record of 26 set by Al Wasl in the 1991/92 season.
Brazilian coach Abel Braga can also boast a few records of his own. Al Jazira have played 63 games on his watch, with 47 wins, 3 defeats and 12 draws, amassing 154 points. During this time they have scored 161 goals to 61 conceded.
Al Jazira’s astonishing returns can be put down to a number of factors, first and foremost the board’s decision to keep the wily Brazilian at the helm for a third consecutive season. This has allowed Braga to build on the solid base he laid over the past two years and fashion a footballing unit of irresistible power. The club has also been involved in a number of transfers and signings this year, strengthening the squad with foreign players with experience of the UAE League.
Former Brazil international Ricardo Oliveira, on loan to Sao Paulo since January 2010, was brought back to play alongside Ibrahim Diaky and new signings Matias Delgado, an Argentinian formerly with Al Wasl and Al Ahli’s Brazilian star forward Jader Bare. The new look squad allowed Braga to field a strong first team for the duration of the season and the results speak for themselves.
Success richly deserved
In Braga’s mind there is no doubt that his side deserved to win the league and cup: “I’m delighted with Al Jazira’s UAE League title and our victory in the President’s Cup. It’s the product of a lot of hard work by everyone at the club: the management, who gave the moral and financial support we needed, and all the rest of the staff - technical, medical and administrative - who worked tirelessly to provide the players with the ingredients of success.
“We dreamed of winning the double,” Braga added. “It’s been our goal from the start of the season. We realised it was going to be tough against Al Wahda in the final so we prepared well and made our plans. Winning just strengthened our determination to keep our place at the top of the table and we ended up claiming the league title with a month to spare.”
“I was sure we would seal the championship against Al Wasl. Al Zabil Stadium is my lucky ground: I won the 2008 Dubai Cup there with Internacional. It’s not Al Jazira’s fault that the other teams were weak. We won because we’re the best, with the best attack and the best defence. We’re the only team that remained unbeaten in the league this season and we hope to keep it that way and extend our record run.”
The coach departs
There was much speculation that after winning the double, Braga would be tempted to make a bid for more silverware with Al Jazira. But despite the lure of AFC Champion’s League glory the Brazilian maestro has taken the difficult decision to leave the club at the end of this season. “I took the decision to return to Brazil,” explained Braga. “When I informed the players they were very moved. In fact, they asked me not to go, but I’ve been forced to take this step out of consideration for my family. I’ll be going back to Fluminense where I won the Campeonato Carioca in 2005. It’s in the same region where I live and I’ll be able to spend more time with my family. I hope I’ll be as blessed there as I have been here at Al Jazira.”
The pride of Abu Dhabi
The small Emirate should be proud of their team’s double success, but victory brings its own responsibilities. Not only must they defend their crown, Al Jazira will now be expected to make their mark on the Asian continent.