Timeframe: When the UAE football team played in the 1990 World Cup

The squad's inspiring journey to football's biggest stage was captured in a documentary in 2016

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This month marks 34 years since the UAE’s first – and so far, only – appearance at the Fifa World Cup finals.

In 1990, a group of young, amateur players nicknamed "the golden generation” helped the country make it to football’s grandest stage in Italy. They were drawn in a difficult Group D up against eventual champions West Germany, Yugoslavia and Colombia.

The UAE would go on to lose all their matches. However, midfielder Khalid Ismail etched his name into history by scoring the country’s first goal at a World Cup, in a 5-1 loss to the champions-in-waiting. Sharjah's Ali Thani also scored in a 4-1 defeat to Yugoslavia.

The UAE, which was not even 20 years old at the time, secured their World Cup berth by finishing second in Asian Football Confederation qualifying. They were ahead of Qatar, China, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea, earning one of the two spots allocated along with South Korea.

"I can't describe to you how we felt when we first heard that we qualified," Abdulrahman Al Haddad, the team's former centre-back, told The National in 2022.

"The overwhelming sense of pride and happiness is nothing I can put in words. We had tried before in '86 and had failed in the last few minutes when we lost the match so when we qualified in 1990, there was so much relief, pride and happiness.

"We had the spirit and the enthusiasm but the circumstances were not in our favour at the time. We went with a management that was hired to temporarily be with the team. I don't think they expected that we would take them to the finals."

Teammate Abdulrahman Mohammed shared a similar sentiment in 2009: "When the referee blew the whistle for the game to end, it was something I will never forget, something incredible. This, for me, was the best moment in the UAE's football history."

The team’s remarkable journey to qualify for the 1990 World Cup was also turned into a documentary by ImageNation Abu Dhabi in 2016. The film, called Lights of Rome, is directed by Ali Khaled and features archive footage and interviews with former players on the squad.

Updated: June 01, 2024, 10:10 PM