Timing can mean everything, in football and in life.
Approximately 24 hours since the dream of Tokyo 2020 Olympics qualification was left in tatters by Uzbekistan’s 5-1 quarter-final beasting at the AFC U-23 Championship, eagle-eyed fans spotted intriguing changes on the UAE Football Association’s official app.
Long-reported rumours of citizenship being granted to veteran Al Wahda centre forward Sebastian Tagliabue, 34 and electric Al Ain attacker Caio Canedo, 29, did, apparently, become real on Monday.
Both now had nationalities which represented that of their employment, rather than birth (Argentina and Brazil, respectively). It has ensured the Whites can call on the Arabian Gulf League’s all-time top-scoring foreigner (Tagliabue has 146 strikes in 150 appearances) and a prolific performer acquired for €5.3 million from Al Wasl by the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in July.
No official statement has been released by the governing body, at the time of publishing, to corroborate the update. But a change of nationality on Canedo’s profile on Al Ain’s website further underlined the development’s veracity.
The moment to make this alteration could be, and probably is, pure coincidence. Yet as an act of symbolism, this stands as a bold move by the Emirati game’s new regime.
The message is clear – to all. A renewed sense of purpose and ruthlessness has been applied to their, wayward, pursuit of World Cup 2022 entry.
Beginning, seemingly, with March’s critical double header versus Malaysia and Indonesia.
It is, however, incorrect to argue this is a fresh departure from established dogma. They stand as the logical continuation of long-standing recruitment policy, shifts in UAE society and a reaction to changes elsewhere in Asia.
Naturalisation can be a double-edged sword; hailed as cure when results are positive and labelled the road to ruin when they drop off.
Purists will proffer it goes against what a national side stands for. It could also prove deflating that a time when attackers of palpable promise have emerged from the AFC U-23 wreckage, foreigners at the opposite end of the age spectrum have been drafted in.
Ahead of the semi-finals, Al Jazira’s Zayed Al Ameri is the tournament’s joint-top scorer on three goals. Wingers Ali Saleh, of Wasl, and Yahya Al Ghassani, of Wahda, were among those to show flickers of talent in Thailand.
Senior opportunities for all three will be hampered by Tagliabue and Canedo.
Even more so if Wasl ace Fabio De Lima also gets his official papers in the coming months. The 27-year-old, also, fulfils the FIFA statute that states new nationality can be permitted if they have “lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant association”.
There does not seem an obvious place in the XI for Tagliabue with record-scorer Ali Mabkhout in such fine fettle. Canedo has also rallied against a wide role at Al Ain and would be in direct competition with 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman for the coveted ‘No10’ slot in new boss Ivan Jovanovic’s usual 4-2-3-1 formation.
But their assimilation is just an extension of variations to the fabric of UAE culture and sport.
Al Ghassani, Jazira midfielder Abdulla Ramadan and Al Ain metronome Yahya Nader all started against the Uzbeks. All have entered the Whites system this term.
This was the by-product of November 2017’s decree that allowed expats, residents, UAE-born and children of Emirati mothers to be able to compete in official UAE competitions. Plus, April 2018’s approval of regulations drafted by the UAE General Sports Authority to make eligible from the following September expats, including foreign men married to Emirati women, to join clubs and play for the country in all sports.
This decade’s ‘Golden Generation’ was also carried by Saudi Arabia-born Omar Abdulrahman and Morocco-native Ismail Ahmed.
They legally gained citizenship. So, too, have Canedo and Tagliabue.
A stark difference is that the two South Americans come from separate cultures.
Neither are known to speak fluent Arabic. Or, to public knowledge, share a common religion.
Yet the duo have repeatedly stated genuine affection for the UAE. Tagliabue has, happily, raised his children within its borders since his 2013 arrival, while Canedo – who joined a year later – welcomed a first child this winter.
The Far East offers another solution. Since Guangzhou Evergrande forward Elkeson became the first player to be called up for China without any known ancestry in August 2019, his name is rendered, in English, as Ai Kesen and he’s undergoing intense Mandarin lessons.
Canedo and Tagliabue’s entry reflects broad trends in the Asian game. The principle ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ in effect.
Why not reap the rewards from five-plus years of paid employment? Never mind the transfer fees that brought them to the Emirates.
Citizenship is a fluid concept in an ever-connected world.
It is worth noting that FIFA rejected a proposal from the UAE in June 2011 to relax international eligibility rules, reducing the residency requirement to three years from five.
Clearly, such thoughts have been on the FA’s minds for almost a decade. Clearly, they also emerged the last time their side appeared in a, particular, lull.
Research by the Washington Post evidenced that from the 736 players chosen in the 32 World Cup 2018 squads, 82 weren’t born in the countries they represented.
Morocco stood out with 17 members of their 23-man roster being born outside the borders.
A vast UAE diaspora does not exist. Instead, the estimated one million pool of Emiratis must be bolstered by familial links and expatriates.
Recent revisions to the young player quota could, further, see exceptional 19-year-old Al Nasr centre-back Glauber, a Brazilian bought from Botafogo, join the UAE ranks in the future.
Emiratis and those with direct ancestry could not carry the Whites to Tokyo 2020. Successive losses to Thailand and Vietnam in World Cup 2022 qualifying also highlight the parlous condition of the seniors.
Canedo and Tagliabue may not provide, ultimate, salvation for a country whose only taste of the globe’s premier event came 30 years ago – and counting. But all available avenues must be exhausted at this juncture.
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