Feature: Emirati players can emulate Al Ain’s Asamoah Gyan
Robin van Persie’s goals at the World Cup have been celebrated by Manchester United fans. Arsenal fans have urged Arsene Wenger to give the Costa Rican Joel Campbell a chance. And Liverpool fans could not resist a gloat after Luis Suarez’s two-goal slaying of England.
On Saturday, a smaller, yet no-less-football-mad fan base from Al Ain would have been feeling pretty pleased about their lot, too.
Asamoah Gyan had just scored a superb goal to give Ghana a 2-1 lead over Germany in their Group G match It was his fifth, overall, at three World Cups and, arguably, his best. A World Cup of surprises seemed about to produce its biggest yet.
Germany eventually managed a 2-2 draw, and now Ghana’s mission to qualify to the round of 16 is tough one. They must defeat Portugal and hope that Germany beat the US, with a three-goal swing over the Americans needed.
Whatever happens, Gyan and Ghana’s performances, particularly against Germany, have reminded the world just why everyone fell in love with them four years ago in South Africa.
Gyan was outstanding against one of the tournament’s favourites, his performance a perfect retort to those who assumed his powers would have been dulled by three years playing in the Arabian Gulf League.
Few would begrudge Gyan this moment of vindication. The striker has had to deal with questions over his ambition, not to mention motives, from the day he left Sunderland, the Premier League side, to join Al Ain in September 2011.
Yet his record speaks for itself. Gyan has often said he is playing some of his best football, for Al Ain. He has been the league’s top scorer for three seasons, setting a season-record with 31 in 2012/13. He is a title winner twice and a President’s Cup champion once. The 2014 AFC Champions League remains in his sights, too.
In the three years since he moved to the UAE, his international career has stumbled only briefly. A penalty miss and defeat in the semi-finals of the 2012 African Cup of Nations Cup was followed by a short retirement from the national team. But a return and qualification to Brazil paved the way for his redemption against Germany.
Clearly, at 28, Gyan remains a force.
This is good news for domestic football in the UAE, too. While not suggesting Gyan’s rejuvenation is because of his stint at the Arabian Gulf League, it is nevertheless evidence that coming to these shores does not mean joining a football retirement home, as was so often assumed in the past.
There will be sceptics. Gyan is the first player from the UAE league to perform to this level, though Chile’s Jorge Valdivia also impressed. Many international stars have joined Emirati clubs at the end of their careers, and few have gone on to represent their countries again, never mind at a World Cup. Luca Toni at Al Nasr; David Trezeguet at Baniyas; and Ricardo Quaresma at Al Ahli. None distinguished themselves here.
Gyan is different.
His excellent statistics for Al Ain may not impress a cynical global public, but his performances, levels of fitness and yes, hunger, have not wavered since those famous scenes at South Africa 2010.
The question posed, previously? Did veteran foreign players decline because of their age? Or because of their new, less-demanding environment?
That “chicken or egg” discussion has been reversed. Is the Arabian Gulf League on the rise because the likes of Gyan are finally taking it seriously? Or has Gyan maintained, even improved, his standards thanks to a thriving league?
Perhaps it matters not, as long as the symbiotic improvement persists.
UAE clubs burned by high-profile signings have become cleverer in their dealings, signing younger, hungrier players. Over the past few years this has coincided with the emergence of the best crop of domestic players since the mid-to-late 1980s.
Gyan’s performances at Brazil 2014 can be a lesson to his Al Ain teammate Omar Abdulrahman and the rest of this Emirati generation that they can rub shoulders with the world’s best.
Gyan showed against Germany that plying his trade in the UAE has not been fatal to his international career. Repeat the trick against Portugal, on Thursday, and perhaps his biggest critics will have to concede the point, as well.