Film review: UAE football’s spirit is celebrated in The Lights of Rome

If you are a football fan, if you love the UAE, or if you enjoy films that champion the human spirit, this film is for you. If you do not understand Arabic (or, briefly, German), be prepared to read subtitles. And bring tissues.

In October 1989, in the AFC Final Round in Singapore, the UAE National Football Team qualified for the 1990 Fifa World Cup in Rome with a one all draw against South Korea.

With luck on their side, thanks to Qatar defeating China at the very same time, the UAE team had accomplished what they had just missed out on four years earlier in 1985 when Iraq heartbreakingly scored a last-minute goal that caused, despite a 2-1 UAE win, the qualification for Mexico City to fall through.

The Lights of Rome is a 2016 documentary by former The National journalist Ali Khaled, which tells the story of the team that found validation in Singapore, a heroes' welcome in Abu Dhabi, and ultimately world recognition in Rome, without winning a single game in the tournament – it remains their only World Cup appearance to date.

As the underdogs of Group D, which included powerhouses Yugoslavia and Colombia as well as eventual world champions West Germany, the UAE were cheered by international fans, even those - as the film recalls - who brought them maps and asked “Where is your country located?”

A team made up of players whose average age was just 19, who came from a country that was also just 19 years old, and represented the unity of the seven emirates, had arrived on the world scene with one goal in mind – participation.

These Emirati players had grown up playing the beautiful game on the streets of the UAE – as well as the beaches and playgrounds and desert – and they trained together for many years, rising through the ranks of various tournaments, and legitimately representing their country.

As Lights of Rome portrays, a clear quality the Emirati team had was the passion and dedication. When the rain began to fall in their match against West Germany, the latter retreated to the locker room to change their cletes to rain-cletes while the UAE team remained on the field, stunned that this was an option, as they didn't have other shoes.

After all, who needs rain gear in the UAE? Yet the footwear choice by the West German team arguably helped them win the game 5-1 while the UAE slipped and slid across the wet field.

Such a relatable moment becomes a metaphor for viewers who know how it feels to not exactly be out of one’s element, but unprepared for the situation, and still powering through.

If you are a football fan, if you love the UAE, or if you enjoy films that champions the human spirit, this film is for you. If you do not understand Arabic (or, briefly, German), be prepared to read subtitles. And bring tissues.

The Lights of Rome runs for 72 minutes and is playing at Cine Royal in Dalma Mall and Deerfields Mall; Vox Cinemas in Mall of the Emirates and City Centre Fujairah; and Reel Cinemas in The Dubai Mall.

efortini@thenational.ae