Al Ain's Champions League title is also a win for Arab football

The beautiful game has become a sporting and cultural force that has propelled Arab leagues, clubs and national teams into the global spotlight

Al Ain players, coaches and fans are basking in the glow of a hard-fought win. EPA
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Although the atmosphere in Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Saturday evening was one of a kind, Al Ain’s lifting of the Asian Champions League trophy for the second time after a 21-year wait is far from being a footballing first for a UAE club. In fact, the Garden City’s 5-1 triumph in a manic second-leg fixture against Japan’s Yokohama F Marinos is just the latest in a series of significant achievements for football in the Emirates and across the Arab world.

For now, Al Ain players, coaches and fans are basking in the glow of a hard-fought win. Just over two weeks ago however, things looked very different. Yokohama secured a 2-1 first-round win at the Nissan Stadium, leaving Ainawis who had travelled thousands of kilometres to Japan to cheer on their team apprehensive about the return leg and fearing another potential runner-up spot, having come second in the competition in 2005 and 2016.

It must also have been a nerve-racking moment for Argentine coach Hernan Crespo, who was appointed only in November. However, when the Garden City club defeated Saudi powerhouses Al Nassr and Al Hilal in the quarter-final and semi-final respectively, he would have known that this group of players were made of the right stuff to win. And so it transpired.

Crespo was right when, speaking after the game, he said: “We are very proud of this title. We are very proud because we not only represent the club or the city, but all the country.” The congratulations that poured in from President Sheikh Mohamed and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and from people from all walks of life, proved Crespo’s point that Al Ain’s joy was shared by the Emirates as a whole. But it’s important to note that such achievements rarely arrive unexpectedly and Al Ain’s repeated sojourns to the top levels of Asian football have their beginnings decades ago.

Even before the UAE was established, football gripped the imagination of the people who live here. Al Ain was founded three years before the union and like many other clubs began a lengthy process of attracting top coaching and playing talent with an eye on also developing local players and administrators. That investment and partnership approach has paid off and can be seen in the fact that most of Al Ain’s current playing squad are citizens of the UAE.

Al Ain’s achievement also complements how the beautiful game has become a powerful sporting and cultural force that has propelled Arab leagues, clubs and national teams into the international spotlight.

Few will soon forget Morocco’s valiant fourth-place finish at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, when fans from across the Arab world cheered on the Atlas Lions at a trouble-free tournament that showcased some of the best that the Gulf has to offer. Doha was again the host last year when the AFC Asian Cup final was contested by two Arab sides: Qatar and first-time finalists Jordan.

The arrival of superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema to top-flight Saudi clubs has brought football in the Arabian Peninsula to a global audience.

At club level, too, Arab teams have much to celebrate, including Al Ain, which has gone toe-to-toe with the best, eventually coming up short against Real Madrid in the 2018 Fifa Club World Cup final. The Abu Dhabi club also made history when it won the Asian Champions League for the first time in 2003.

Off the pitch, football remains a powerful way of connecting people, a characteristic that complements the UAE as an international crossroads. Indeed, sometimes these human connections transcend sport entirely. Earlier this month, the Palestinian women’s team overcame many obstacles to travel to Dublin for a solidarity match against Irish club Bohemians. The emotional scenes on and off the pitch showed that the game meant much more to players and fans alike than the visitors’ eventual 2-1 win.

For Al Ain, the work to build on this result will begin soon. This result will energise players and fans alike and if, as the old proverb goes, nothing succeeds like success, then this famous win may just be the start of another illustrious chapter in the club's nearly six-decade history.

Published: May 27, 2024, 3:00 AM