It seems there's never been a better time to be an African soccer player. With Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o having become the highest-paid sports star on the planet following his switch to mysterious Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala last month, Ghanaian Asamoah Gyan made history when he joined UAE side Al Ain on a season-long loan last weekend.
A fee of around six million pounds—almost half the figure Sunderland paid French club Rennes to buy him outright after last summer's World Cup—makes this the most expensive loan deal ever agreed in the British game as Gyan saw his wages multiplied more than fivefold overnight.
But while the circumstances behind his departure are still causing arguments at his parent club, Al Ain and the rest of the Etisalat Pro-League are celebrating a coup that could signal the start of some major changes in football's power base.
Everyone already knows the extent of investment from the Middle East there has been in European clubs, but with the 2022 World Cup on the horizon, the focus is switching towards improving the domestic leagues in the region. And that means you can expect to see plenty more players at the height of their careers turn their backs on the tradition in favour of cash.
With a month until the new season properly begins, a list of transfer deals that have gone through so far makes interesting reading. Besides Gyan, ex-France striker David Trezeguet, 33, has signed for one season by big-spending Baniyas for a reported 1.7 million pounds after turning down approaches from Celtic among others. He joins a raft of other international stars at the club in the form of Brazilian Grafite, Chilean Luis Jimenez and Australian Lucas Neill—who West Ham fans will know doesn't come cheap.
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"The deal for Trezeguet is not just for Baniyas alone—it is also for UAE football," vice-chairman Saif Khaili told the team's official website on the day the signing was announced.
Bankrolled by one of Abu Dhabi's biggest property investors, Baniyas finished runners-up last season and will enter the Asian Champions League this season. They are one of a number of teams who have invested heavily in their playing and coaching staff in the last 12 months and the trend looks set to continue.
Over in Dubai, a certain Diego Armando Maradona is preparing to make his bow as the coach of Al Wasl in the preseason Emirates Cup on Saturday. An annual salary of 3.5 million euros a year, plus the use of a personal private jet (once again financed by a wealthy benefactor—H.H Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is the owner of Emirates Airlines) certainly helped persuade the ex-Argentina boss to make the plunge, even if Maradona himself has insisted otherwise.
"We did not come here just to sunbathe," he told reporters earlier this month. However, like their new boss, Al Wasl enjoyed their glory days back in the mid 1980s when they were regular title-winners and it looks like it's going to be a long debut season for El Diego.
But the team to beat will certainly be Al Ain. Already historically the country's most successful team having become the only UAE side to have won the continental title in 2003, Gyan will join a foreign contingent that now includes Romanian Mirel Radoi and Ignacio Scocco from Argentina, plus young Ivorian striker Juma Desireh.
And having just appointed a new coach in the form of ex-Steau Bucharest boss Cosmin Olaroiu, the Romanian will know that a repeat of last season's 10th-place finish will not be tolerated.
"We are bringing in young players who are motivated to win and all the players we have signed have won competitions in the past," he told reporters this week.
"That is why we brought Gyan in because of what he has achieved in the past for his country."
Following in the footsteps of his legendary compatriot Abedi Pele, the 25-year-old joins a long list of African players to have moved to the Middle East. But while Pele joined Al Ain at the age of 34 and played two seasons in the swansong of his career, Gyan's arrival signifies that the UAE is no longer a retirement home for the stars of yesteryear.
Qatar's successful 2022 World Cup bid appears to have been the major catalyst for so much sudden investment but that's only part of the story. As part of a general ambition to turn the region into a major business and tourist hub over the next 20 years, sport is just one recreational activity playing a leading role.
Dubai has already revealed plans to bid for the 2024 Olympic Games, while the ambitious Abu Dhabi 2030 project will oversee a number of infrastructure developments "to ensure that the emirate is a modern, thriving place to live and work in the future, as its population grows to 3 million." Among those will be purpose-built Saadiyat Island - a $38 billion development that will house a number of enormous museums, with The Louvre and Guggenheim already having committed themselves to creating offshoots.
It's hoped that this will bring in around 1.5 million visitors a year to Abu Dhabi by 2015, by which time the Etisalat Pro-League could be the home of some of world football's biggest stars. Times, indeed, are a-changing.