UAE: a journey to the unknown at Italia 90

UAE: a journey to the unknown at Italia 90

While the fallout and anger at Qatar being awarded the World Cup in 2022 continues unabated, this year marks the 27th anniversary of the altogether more romantic story of another Gulf Sheikdom’s epic qualification for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

The team, which began its qualifying campaign in January 1989, was made up entirely of players based in the UAE. The Al Ain, Al-Wasl, Al-Nasr, Al Khaleej, Al-Shaab and Sharjah clubs provided the players that would go on to make history. But before qualifying had even begun there had already been a number of high-profile changes behind the scenes, involving some of world football’s most well-renowned managers.

The legendary former Leeds manager, Don Revie, was appointed manager of the UAE in 1977. At the time this caused huge consternation in England as his employers only discovered that he had resigned through a Daily Mail article. He was criticised for being solely motivated by money and it would later transpire that there were well-founded accusations of match fixing. Despite picking up an almost unparalleled tax-free annual salary, the former England boss was not simply there to pick up his paycheque and put in place the building blocks upon which World Cup qualification would be built.

He was credited with introducing reforms and implementing improvements in football facilities that hugely benefited the domestic game in the UAE. Referring to his father’s time there, Duncan Revie stated: “Dad was definitely a pioneer. He introduced tactical ideas and coaching techniques that had not been seen [in the Middle East] before. He was proud of what he did and what he achieved. He started introducing the professionalism that eventually helped the UAE qualify for the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy.”

Revie senior’s spell in charge was brought to an end in 1980 and he was replaced by great Iranian coach, Heshmat Mohajerani. He had presided over the most successful period in Iranian football, leading them to the Asian Cup title in 1976, passage through the group stage in the ‘76 Olympics and then World Cup qualification two years later in 1978. He enjoyed more limited success with the UAE, qualifying for the 1980 Asian Cup and coming third at the 1982 Gulf Cup of Nations. He was replaced in 1984 by Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira.

Parreira had cut his footballing teeth in this part of the world by taking Kuwait to the 1982 World Cup and winning the 1980 Asian Cup. Although he secured qualification to the 1988 Asian Cup, the UAE’s performance at the tournament was disappointing and Parreira left to take over regional rivals, Saudi Arabia. Despite leaving, he had built a good relationship with his players and also the footballing authorities. His spot on the bench was taken by a compatriot, the great Mário Zagallo.

Zagallo had won the World Cup twice as a player, in 1958 and 1962, and then as a manager in 1970. In doing so, he became the first man to achieve both. He brought huge experience, tactical nous and also inspiration to a squad that had yet to make its mark on the international scene. His presence, allied with the preparatory work done by his predecessors in professionalising the approach to football in the UAE would bring them their moment in the limelight. But only after a long and nerve biting qualifying campaign.

Twenty-five teams were split across six different groups, with the UAE finding themselves drawn against old rivals Kuwait and Pakistan and South Yemen. South Yemen were to withdraw before a ball was kicked and thus the UAE only had to negotiate three group games. In their first game, on 13 January 1989, they faced a tricky away tie in Kuwait City. They went behind after 26 minutes but two goals from Zuhair Saeed Bakheet-Bila put them into a commanding position with 20 minutes to go. However, they could not hold on and Kuwait scored two late goals to record a 3-2 victory.

Seven days later they faced Pakistan in a crunch home tie. They knew that a win was imperative given that their rivals for first place, Kuwait already had four points on the board. This was at a time when only two points were awarded for a win. They were at the races from the off, securing in the first minute on their way to a comfortable 5-0 victory. These goals would prove to be vital to qualification from the first group stage.

After Kuwait’s 2-0 home victory over Pakistan on 27 January, Zagallo and his players knew that they if they won their next two games, they would qualify for the final round. Up first was the tie against early pacesetters and rivals for top spot, Kuwait. The game was a tense affair with a solitary goal by the man who would go on to get a national record of 161 caps, Adnan Khamees Al Talyani, proving the difference.

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With a superior goal difference to Kuwait, a victory for the UAE in their final group game against group whipping boys Pakistan would be sufficient to take them to the next round. This was secured with the minimum of fuss; the Emiratis were four goals to the good after 70 minutes. As a result, they secured their place in the final round alongside fellow group winners Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China and North Korea. However, as one of the earliest group winners, it would be over eight months before they returned to World Cup qualifiers.

The majority of the final group stage games were held in Singapore and began for the UAE with a 0-0 draw against North Korea. Five days later they faced a strong Chinese team. They fell behind to a splendid strike from Tang Yaodong and looked to be heading for defeat. However, in the 87th minute, Khaleel Mubarak beat the Chinese goalkeeper to an out-swinging corner and levelled the scores at 1-1. Zagallo and his staff had to be asked to calm down by the officials on the touch line but even greater jubilation was to follow. A minute later, Chinese substitute Dong lost the ball in the UAE half; a rapid counter-attack followed which culminated in Al Talyani again proving the hero by lashing home a strike from the edge of the box.

Consecutive draws then followed against Saudi Arabia and Qatar and, in the final game, they faced a tricky tie against group leaders and regional powerhouse South Korea. The Korean’s had won three out of their four final group games, conceding no goals in the process. They had also scored 25 goals without reply in completely dominating Group 4 in the first round of qualifying.

The Emiratis went behind to an absolute pile-driver from Hwangbo Kwan after only eight minutes. However, they showed admirable resolve to compose themselves and equalise on 16 minutes through a headed goal by from the irrepressible Al Talyani. They would hang on to secure the draw they needed; the result led to memorable scenes of Zagallo being carried around the pitch in a chair, to the adulation of his players and those fans who had managed to make the trip to the Darulmakmur Stadium in Malaysia.

They had done the unthinkable and secured World Cup qualification. In every big game they had performed and the influence of Zagallo, who had vast experience of such high-pressure games, as both a player and manager, cannot be overestimated.

Reflecting upon the qualifying campaign recently in an interview with UAE newspaper The National, former international Ali Thani, revealed the nature of the sacrifice that many of the players had made to get to that point: “At the time, we were a group of amateur players, many making sacrifices to play and represent our country,” Thani said. “Many had left their families, others left their jobs, just to be able to play in the World Cup qualifications. Nobody expected us to beat all the odds and qualify … I still remember the match we played in the qualifications phase against China. Everybody was excited, determined to prove ourselves fit to play at the World Cup.”

They had proved themselves fit to play at the World Cup, and with Zagallo at the helm boasted a manager with an excellent World Cup pedigree. It was therefore extremely surprising that he left his position before the tournament began to return to Vasco da Gama in his native Brazil. He was replaced by the man he had replaced, Carlos Alberto Parreira.

Parriera not only had the advantage of knowing the players from his pervious spell in charge but had also previously managed Kuwait at the 1982 World Cup and thus knew the challenge that faced the UAE in Italy.

The draw for the World Cup finals was not particularly kind as Colombia, West Germany and Yugoslavia would take on the UAE in Group D. Their first game of the finals took place in front of a crowd of almost 31,000 in Bologna.

Against a talented Colombian side including the mercurial talents of Carlos Valderrama and Freddy Rincón, the UAE acquitted themselves extremely well and went into half time at 0-0. They had competed, had not been overawed and perhaps should have taken the lead when the usually clinical Talyani missed a good chance towards the end of the first period.

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However, their inexperience and relative naivety was cruelly exposed five minutes into the second half when they were caught out trying to play a high line and Bernardo Redín headed home from a Leonel Álvarez cross. There would be no remarkable recovery this time and Valderrama wrapped up the game with a fine strike from the edge of the box with five minutes remaining.

Next up for the plucky underdogs was the ultimate test: one of the best teams in football of that, or indeed any other, generation, West Germany. The Germans had reached the final of four of the last six tournaments and boasted superstars Rudi Völler, Jürgen Klinsmann and Lothar Matthäus amongst a talent-packed squad. Playing in front of 71,000 fans in the San Siro was on a different level to anything the Emirati players had ever experienced. Their captain that day, Abdulrahman Mohammed, described the experience in an interview with Emirati-based journalist Gary Meeneghan:

Their captain that day, Abdulrahman Mohammed, described the experience in an interview with Emirati-based journalist Gary Meeneghan: “The first true feeling of being a football player was playing in Italy – especially when I ran on to the pitch at the San Siro against Germany. It doesn’t get any bigger or better than that: Jürgen Klinsmann, Rudi Völler, Andreas Brehme, Thomas Häßler, Lothar Matthaus … You gain confidence and experience from playing on that stage against those kind of players; it’s a learning curve and a turning point.”

The magnitude of the occasion didn’t overawe the UAE and the game remained scoreless for the first 30 minutes, thanks in a large part to some superb goalkeeping from Muhsin Musabah. Germany broke the deadlock after 35 minutes through a well-taken Völler finish. Klinsmann made it two shortly afterwards with a textbook header.

After coming out from the half time break the UAE, rather than capitulate, attacked the Germans and Khalid Ismaïl Mubarak took advantage of a defensive mistake to fire across Bodo Illgner and score what remains their most famous ever goal. The ecstasy etched across his face showed the happiness and disbelief at what he had achieved. West Germany scored a minute later to re-establish their two-goal lead and went to on to win 5-1.

The UAE went into their final group game against Yugoslavia already out of the tournament, with their opponents in search of a win to guarantee second place in the group. Early strikes from Safet Sušić and Darko Pančev suggested a heavy defeat was on the cards. Again, the Emiratis refused to throw in the towel and midfielder Ali Thani timed his run to perfection to net a powerful header after 22 minutes. A third Yugoslav goal at the start of the second half effectively ended the game as a contest, with the final score 4-1. The Emiratis finished bottom of Group D with no points and a goal difference of -9.

They were seen by some as the worst team at a sub-par World Cup but they elicited happiness, excitement and patriotism, boosting the collective pride of a nation that had not long come into existence. In short, they were a manifestation of what the World Cup means to millions of football fans every four years. They would return home heroes and have been labelled as the golden generation ever since. It is strange that with the influx of wealth, investment and western input into the UAE since 1990 they have not been able to recreate another golden era and reach the World Cup finals again.

They have continued to employ high-profile foreign managers such as Carlos Queiroz, Henri Michel, Roy Hodgson and Dick Advocaat. However, in contrast to the state’s opulent spending overseas, there has not been the same level of backing and resources allocated to developing grassroots football in the UAE, thus restricting the possibility of a new breed of youngsters following in the footsteps of the class of 1990.

This has recently started to change as European clubs and retired footballers have begun setting up their own football academies in the region. The development and modernisation of football coaching and facilities across the world and the improvement of international teams generally have also meant that competition for World Cup qualification is now fiercer than ever for smaller nations.

However, there remains optimism that this small nation can once again dine at world football’s top table.

By Michael Tombs. Follow @Michael_Tombs

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