On 24th July, 2013, a 22-year-old attacking midfielder left the city of Buenos Aires for a land far, far away. Ten thousand kilometers away, to be precise. Luis Fariña was leaving his hometown club, Racing Club de Avellaneda, for the subtropical climate of Lisbon. Brought in for €3.5 million, he was touted as another one of Benfica’s cash cow deals.
Two weeks later, however, he was to be sent out on loan to further his development. It was thought that since Braga and Sporting CP had been tracking him before he had joined Benfica, he would stay in Portugal. And yet, on 9th August, 2013, Luis Fariña traveled a further six thousand kilometers to Abu Dhabi.
The decision to leave European football without having kicked a football seemed strange. If settling into Benfica was tough – surrounded by the Argentinian contingent of Ezequiel Garay, Eduardo Salvio, Nicolás Gaitán, Enzo Pérez and Lisandro López – imagine settling into a club located in a tribal confederation, with no compatriot at all, and which has only competed in top flight action since 2009.
In truth, though, the decision wasn’t too bad. Baniyas Sports Club had just come fourth in the 2012-13 campaign, their highest ever top flight finish, and had won the Gulf Clubs Championship. And not by fluke. They had assembled a team full of underrated potential, and attacked teams – going for the jugular.
As a result, their team was ripped apart by rival teams. A staggering nineteen players had left the club, including top scorer André Senghor, who was poached away by Al-Wasl; and Adnan Hussain, central to every play in the attacking midfield role, who was snapped up by Al-Ahli. The heavy losses meant that Baniyas were deemed relegation candidates.
But Baniyas had other ideas.
The club repeated their template for the transfer windows to follow. They looked around for players who had something to prove – either those who were still young, or those who were older and hadn’t yet shown their full potential.
And in 2013, Luis Fariña and sixteen other players entered the club, including Chilean striker Carlos Muñoz from Colo-Colo (€4 million, sold a year later to Al-Ahli for €9.8 million), and Omani center-back Abdulsalam Al Mukhaini, who was desperate to get his career back on track following a disappointing spell in Saudi Arabia. They signed several local players who had fallen off the grid at bigger clubs, including goalkeeper Sultan Musabbeh from champions Al-Ain. Even though Baniyas had just recruited a new manager and had completely revamped the squad, they finished comfortably in mid-table.
The trend of making shrewd acquisitions continued, as in the summer of 2014 they secured the services of Jung-Woo Kim from K-League side Jeonbuk, and the Spanish duo of classy midfielder Joan Verdú from Espanyol and centre back Ángel Dealbert from Kuban Krasnodar – all for the grand total of €0. Again, the club preserved its top flight status with a comfortable mid-table finish.
But maybe this season has the indications of a serious challenge to the established heavyweights. Baniyas have released the Spanish contingent after just a year at the club and have had a refreshingly stable summer. They have made four astute signings, which include striker Joaquín Larrivey from Celta de Vigo for a ridiculous €2 million, considering he had enough quality to shine in the Premier League.
Defensive anchor and Australian international Mark Milligan joined from Melbourne Victory for just €890,000. And to complete their quartet of foreign players, Baniyas signed fallen giant and ex-Real Madrid winger Royston Drenthe for free, as well as striker Ishak Belfodil, who was released from troubled Parma.
The transfers that they haven’t made have been important too. They have persisted with experienced coach Luis Garcia for a second year, a manager who took cash-strapped Levante to La Primera and kept them there. Moreover, they’ve kept hold of local stars Bandar Al Ahbabi and Haboush Saleh, who provide a different dimension to the team’s right-wing. Midfielder Mark Milligan was more than happy with the duo.
Bandar’s pace down the right and willingness to get forward and put balls into the box is second to none.
Haboush is a very skillful guy and I try to get the ball to his feet as much as possible because I enjoy watching him play as well.
The final product of the two has been pretty good.
The results are already promising. Baniyas are currently unbeaten in their first five games, a definite improvement on last season when they started with three draws and a defeat. The trio of Belfodil (four), Larrivey (six) and Fawaz Awana (two) have score all the goals so far, and will undoubtedly continue to score more. Moreover, they are just four points off the top and with a game in hand.
For most clubs in the UAE, money has never been a problem. This year, Copa America winning captain Jorge Valdivia was signed by Abu Dhabi-based Al-Wahda this year, who were able to offer higher wages than Chinese powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande. Meanwhile, Al-Ahli spent an astounding €16 million on 29-year-old striker Moussa Sow from Fenerbahçe.
For Baniyas, however, money is the problem. They are minnows in their own city; their finances would deem them relegation candidates year-on-year. Their stadium capacity of 9,500 isn’t exactly impressive. Neither is their trophy cabinet.
But they will recruit the player no one wants or needs. They know how to spot bargains, even if the club can’t hold on to them for long. And after years of waiting, they have succeeded in building a squad that can challenge for the highest honors.