Al Ain’s Asian title shows how far UAE football has come, and how far it will go

Winning the Champions League also reflected the success embedded in the country’s diversity as Emirati players blended brilliantly with the team’s expatriates

Chris Whiteoak / The National
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President Sheikh Mohamed was the first to offer his congratulations.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, soon added his praise and the sentiments were echoed by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Vice President, Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the Presidential Court, and Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed, Deputy Ruler of Abu Dhabi, and thousands throughout the UAE.

On the pitch at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain, a tearful Hernan Crespo, Al Ain FC’s Argentine head coach, found a quiet moment of reflection away from the fray, sinking to his haunches and kissing the medal around his neck. An Asian Champions League winner’s medal.

Just behind him, his team and staff were joined by the club’s administration on the plinth that proclaimed in block capitals, sandwiched on an arch between Al Ain’s purple emblem on either side: “CHAMPIONS”.

For that’s what Al Ain are: continent champions for the first time in more than two decades. That agonising search since their only other Asian title in 2003, and the wonder of when second would come, had been arrested after 21 years. Between then and now, Al Ain had competed twice in the showpiece, finishing second on both occasions.

Yet on Saturday, the only UAE side to seal the continent’s principal club prize did it again. They swarmed over Yokohama F Marinos of Japan to triumph 5-1 on a starry night in the Garden City, as Al Ain is often known, and prevail 6-3 on aggregate. They pushed back against the weight of history and the residue of those runners-up finishes in 2005 and 2016 to finally perch at the summit once more.

That Sheikh Mohamed marked the achievement as soon as the whistle went, and the stadium erupted again, only emphasised the magnitude of what had just transpired. At Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, once he had regained his composure as his players gatecrashed the post-match press conference, Crespo, who has just about seen and done it all in football, dedicated the victory to “all the country”.

“At the beginning nobody believed in us, and we did it,” he said. “These guys, these players, did something big."

That they had. In the previous rounds, Al Ain had seen off twin Saudi threats in Al Nassr and Al Hilal, two of Asia’s best-stocked sides, one boasting Cristiano Ronaldo and the other on a world-record run of 34 consecutive wins.

Dazzling nights at home were supplemented with defiant displays in Riyadh, and Al Ain marched into the final. They blitzed Yokohama after a first-leg defeat in Japan, a blur of talent and tenacity in front of near 25,000 of their own fans. Soufiane Rahimi, the tournament standout, struck twice in the second leg and ran ragged his rivals. Deservedly, he concluded the 2023-24 Champions League as not only its top scorer, but its Most Valuable Player.

Closer to home, the hope is that Al Ain’s victory sparks a consistent challenge from Emirati clubs at the sharp end of the Asian game

But at times during the campaign, UAE captain Khalid Essa had been inspired in goal, while compatriots Bandar Al Ahbabi, Khalid Al Hashemi, Yahya Nader and Mohammed Abbas excelled in defence and midfield. Abbas is aged 21, Nader 25. Their relative youth suggests the national team’s future is bright, as the country continues to foster local talent to compete on the international stage.

The match was also a showcase in the success embedded in the country’s diversity. Emirati players blended brilliantly with the team’s expatriates – Rahimi, Kaku, Matias Palacios, Park Yong-woo – just like the Emirates has been built by a coming together of people of various backgrounds.

Standing outside the room where Crespo was mobbed by his players, with medal in hand, centre-back Al Hashemi told The National: “I would like to give this competition, this trophy, this gold medal, to our President, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed. Thankfully, we won this, and we give him this happiness.

“Also, I would like to give this to our [club] president Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed and also [Al Ain vice-chairman] Sheikh Sultan bin Hamdan and the board members and everyone included in this club – fans, technical staff. Everyone, literally.”

“Everyone” felt apt, because the UAE was invested in Al Ain’s bid to regain their place at the pinnacle, and the support was appreciated by those in white and purple. It was reciprocated.

"I want the other clubs to do it," Al Hashemi added. "We represent also the UAE; we don't just represent Al Ain.”

The UAE has always thrived in unison, most certainly in sport and, particularly, in football. Think of the national team’s qualification for the 1990 World Cup, less than two decades after the country’s foundation and long before the game was professionalised.

Consider, also, the Arabian Gulf Cup titles in 2007 and 2013. Or their glowing performances in between at the 2012 Olympics – the team’s only participation at the Games. Three years later, the UAE warded off record winners Japan and won hearts on their way to bronze at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.

The Emirates has a long history of successfully hosting major international tournaments. There was the 2003 Fifa World Youth Championship, where Al Wahda FC's Ismail Matar rose to prominence and rode off with the Golden Ball for best player. A decade later was the Under-17 Fifa World Cup.

The UAE has hosted five Fifa Club World Cups since 2009, the outcome of each one confirming the blue-chip pedigree status of their champion clubs: Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Barcelona and Chelsea. But the 2018 tournament stood out; Al Ain entered the record books by reaching the final, where they took on a Madrid side that fielded Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos.

The following year, the continent’s showpiece event, the 2019 Asian Cup, was hosted across Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Al Ain.

Now, the UAE is home to the best team on the continent. Next year, the country will be represented at the inaugural edition of the expanded Club World Cup, with Al Ain competing in the US alongside the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Inter Milan and Paris Saint-Germain. South American powerhouses River, Palmeiras and Flamengo will be there, too, along with Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal.

That a UAE club houses the Champions League trophy is timely. Saudi Arabia has, understandably, garnered worldwide attention given its recent unprecedented spending and the influx of stars to the Saudi Pro League. But Al Ain have shown there’s more than one footballing destination in the Gulf.

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar, considered one of the best global finals in history, shone another light on what the region has to offer. There, Morocco captured the imagination of a worldwide audience with their historic run to the last four, dancing with their mothers after dispatching supposedly superior opponents.

The recently concluded 2023 Asian Cup was a celebration of Arab football, with Palestine somehow focusing on football in the most trying circumstances to qualify for the knockouts for the first time. Likewise, Jordan journeyed all the way to a first final, where they met hosts Qatar.

Closer to home, the hope is that Al Ain’s victory sparks a consistent challenge from Emirati clubs at the sharp end of the Asian game.

Also, that the reflected glory filters through to a national team chasing a second appearance at a World Cup, and first in almost 40 years, at the next attempt, in 2026. With the second round of qualification concluding next month, the UAE are well placed to advance to the third, and final, stage.

As Sheikh Mohamed said on social media in the moments following Al Ain's success on Saturday, "The victory is a moment of great pride for their fans and the whole nation. I applaud the efforts of the players and coaches for this historic achievement that will inspire further sporting success.

Published: May 31, 2024, 6:00 PM
Updated: June 03, 2024, 11:13 AM