How football in the UAE is slowly becoming an international force

How football in the UAE is slowly becoming an international force

Gulf countries have rarely made an impact on the global stage in footballing terms. The Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) six member states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have seen appearances at the FIFA World Cup finals rarely come by, and when they did eventually manage to make it there, they haven’t caught the eye of many.

Kuwait were the first nation to do so when they qualified for the World Cup in Spain in 1982, and Saudi Arabia have been the most consistent, with four successive appearances between 1994 and 2006 being the most for a country from the region. The furthest they went was the second round in 1994, and that was the first time a Gulf country ever managed to make it out of the group stages.

Bahrain have only gone as far as the Asian playoffs, while Qatar are set to make their tournament debut as hosts in 2022. But to add to the GCC’s slight mettle, there was the appearance of tiny United Arab Emirates at Italia 90, where, despite being on the receiving end of several thrashings, they made the nation and the region very proud.

This was the first time that the United Arab Emirates had participated in a global competition of such magnitude and the UAE FA’s president, Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, offered huge financial incentives if they earned a point in a tough group containing eventual champions West Germany, a blistering Yugoslavia and an emerging Colombia.

A local businessman even offered a gift of a brand new Rolls Royce to the first player who scored a goal at the tournament. Khalid Ismaïl bagged the honour, but the car reportedly never arrived in his garage. Nevertheless, it was a mammoth achievement for a country that only united a mere 19 years ago.

They were drawn in Group D for the World Cup and squared off against a Colombia side largely improved and supported by the illegal cocaine problems at home. Bernardo Redín and captain Carlos Valderrama struck in the second half for a comfortable win in South America. The next game, against West Germany, proved to be a shoddier experience, with Rudi Völler, Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Uwe Bein making Khalid Ismaïl’s goal in the second half a consolation to take back to the Middle East.

Read  |  UAE: a journey to the unknown at Italia 90

Their last game was a matter of pride against Yugoslavia, but it was duly snatched away as the Eastern Europeans romped away to a 4-1 win to send the Falcons back home with zero points, two goals and a goal difference of negative nine.

Their coach at the time was Carlos Alberto Parreira, a man who would return at the next World Cup in 1994 with his country of Brazil and go all the way to win the whole competition, beating Italy in the final on penalties.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the UAE would appoint a foreign coach of such calibre. Portuguese Carlos Queiroz was at the helm at the end of the millennium, so too was former England manager Roy Hodgson and current Fenerbahçe boss Dick Advocaat. The quality and experience of the men at the helm in that period helped shape the current mould of the federation, and they are often credited for improving the current state of the national team, led by local Mahdi Ali, despite having short tenures in the country.

Mahdi Ali is one of the smartest minds in Asian football at the moment, having been with the country’s various football teams since 2009, and also previously being the head coach of the under-16 and under-19 sides. He’s seen his players grow from boys to men, and oversaw his side’s progress at the Olympic Games in 2012 – the country’s second appearance at a global football competition, where they were knocked out of the group stages following a draw against Senegal and two defeats to star-studded Uruguay and United Kingdom sides. A star of that short stint at the games was Omar Abdulrahman, who is the country’s flag-bearer as it goes through its golden generation.

At about the size of Lionel Messi and with a haircut that falls between that sported by Willian and Marouane Fellaini, Abdulrahman is the country’s poster boy. A footballer gifted with all the natural ability in the world, he’s shown off his skill on the finest platforms.

Always with an eye for a pass, he is currently the AFC Asian Footballer of the Year following a stellar 12 months with local side Al Ain, where he spurred them on to the AFC Champions League final. And if you need any evidence of his excellence, check out his assist for his captain Ismail Mattar against Uruguay at the Olympics as well as his crucial spot-kick against Japan at the AFC Asian Cup quarter-finals of 2015 – both of which left the watching crowds in awe of the little magician.

Read  |  Omar Abdulrahmen: the diamond in the desert

He is assisted in attack by two forwards in the highest class of predatory instinct, Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil. Together. Together they have an incredible 87 goals in 133 appearances for the national team and have been a vital asset to the Falcons and their respective club sides. They’ve been significant in the UAE’s bid to make it to the World Cup for the first time in 28 years and, along with Abdulrahman, have caught the eye of the crème de la crème of European football, with a move in the near future looking very likely.

The three represent the most dominant and emerging sides in the UAE – Al Ain, Al Ahli and Al Jazira. Al Ain, rightly nicknamed as The Boss, are the country’s most prominent domestic side having won the most league titles, domestic cups and also an AFC Champions League – the only UAE side to have one.

Al Ahli are the second most successful side in the UAE with 18 major honours, and Al Jazira, despite not having a trophy cabinet as loaded as the other two, are seen as an emerging force following heavy involvement from His Highness Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan – the same man who owns the City Football Group, which consists of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Melbourne City of Australia and New York City of Major League Soccer.

There’s been a massive influx of expatriates since the country’s discovery of oil and exports of the same in the 1950s and 1960s, much to the benefit of local football. The money earned is often invested in football clubs and that has seen some star names arrive in the country and pick up various roles on offer.

Diego Maradona caused huge fanfare when he was appointed as the head coach of local side Al Wasl, but his greatness was juxtaposed by results, as he was sacked just 10 months into his two-year contract following a poor season in 2012. He didn’t leave the country and was appointed as Dubai’s Sporting Ambassador just two months later, and has found inordinate peace in the country. He said in 2013: “My life was like Formula 1 in the past, going at full throttle, but I am now experiencing this wonderful tranquillity. Living here among the Arabs has changed a lot of my ideas and beliefs, and this has been a very important experience in my life.”

He’s also expectedly become an in-demand figure amongst the inhabitants of the country and is often seen at jewellery store openings and even started out on a venture of his own – Café Diego. But perhaps his most prominent contribution towards improving football in the country has been his mentoring of football academies all over the country, which have risen in quality in recent years.

Europe’s finest such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Arsenal have taken advantage of the increasing immigration in the UAE and have invested immensely in their youth academies. This hasn’t only been of benefit to them on and off the pitch, but also an advantage to young learners of the game looking for a competitive atmosphere to play in and bring out the best of their abilities, as well as fulfil their interests. Opportunities include taking the most gifted players to the facility of the club they signed for and providing them with the chance to train with the club for a week or two.

With many of the expatriates of the country gracing from the Indian subcontinent, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has decided to gamble on the country’s prospects as well. They held trials for Indian players under the age of 17, with a chosen few getting the chance to train with those back in India for a chance to be a part of the national team’s under-17 side as they prepare to host the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in India in October 2017 – the first major international football competition that the country will host.

Another great partnership which has come up lately involves Spanish influence, with La Liga teaming up with local telecommunications company du to provide schools and low-budget football academies with a chance of performing at an international level. The du Football Championships is aimed at bringing out the best players under the age of 16 and giving them a chance to travel to Spain to challenge as well as train with players of a similar age group who were at the academies of Málaga, Granada, Cadiz, Cordoba and four-time UEFA Cup/Europa League winners, Sevilla.

With the contribution of top level Spanish coaches and former Real Madrid icon Míchel Salgado, who himself manages the Spanish Soccer Schools in Dubai, the initiative’s initial editions have seen vast participation.

If you’re just a budding footballer, or an ordinary person looking for a game, there’s a rising provision of immaculate AstroTurf football pitches being rented out for as little as AED 240 (around $65) for an hour, proving why the country has more to it than just giant buildings, wild cars and a striking fleet of police vehicles.

The country is in safe hands for now and the future with its players being given the highest amount of attention possible from a youth level to the senior team. The current crop of footballers look the most likely to make it to their second-ever World Cup finals, and with the way things are developing in the country as well as FIFA’s bizarre decision to expand to a 48-team World Cup commencing from 2026, their second could be followed by a third, fourth, fifth and more in quick succession 

By Karan Tejwani    @karan_tejwani26

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