How the UAE’s football team finally managed to reach the lights of Rome

In 1990, the UAE’s football team qualified for their first-ever World Cup, a feat still unmatched. Here Ali Khaled, who directed The Lights of Rome, traces the path of a team that would become the Golden Generation

On Thursday night, The Lights of Rome [Anwar Roma], ImageNation Abu Dhabi’s documentary that follows the UAE’s unlikely qualification to the 1990 World Cup, will debut at DOC NYC festival in New York.

The remarkable story of how the UAE’s Golden Generation overcame incredible odds to reach Italia ‘90 will now touch new audiences. Yet it’s a tale that was in danger of being forgotten by a young generation of Emiratis.

Now it’s being retold thanks to the efforts of Image Nation, a film production company at the forefront of documenting Emirati achievements and excellence.

“The Lights of Rome is one of our films that is so close to my heart as it tells the story of my childhood,” says Mohammed Al Mubarak, chairman of Image Nation Abu Dhabi. “This film is not only another entertaining and informative documentary to add to our slate, it will serve as a historical document that finally details the legacy of what those players achieved for UAE and Middle East football.”

The UAE has not come close to emulating this achievement since, though the excellent group of players currently led by coach Mahdi Ali retain genuine ambitions of qualifying to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. In hindsight, qualification to Italia 90, already an astonishing feat back then, takes on even more miraculous proportions with each passing year.

The circumstances bear repeating. The UAE was just shy of its 18th birthday when qualification was confirmed in Singapore in October 1989. Every single member of the squad that played in Singapore and later Italy was born before the seven emirates had became a unified nation on December 2, 1971.

“We would lift up our kandura and play on the sand,” forward Nasser Khamees fondly recalls in the film, speaking of his childhood years. The notion of the UAE at a World Cup finals was pure fantasy.

What is more remarkable is how quickly football embedded itself into the social fabric of the nation, and continued to have a profound effect on the sporting, cultural and even political progress of the UAE over the decades since.

The UAE Football Association was established mere weeks after unification and became one of the first Emirati institutions of its kind to join an international federation when it acquired Fifa membership in the early months of 1972. The UAE’s first-ever international match followed shortly at the second Gulf Cup of Nations in Saudi Arabia; a 1-0 win over Qatar on March 17, 1972.

With the country on a relentless path of progress under the leadership of Founding Father Sheikh Zayed, the national football team was never too far behind.

The 1970s, which included an ultimately unsuccessful stewardship by ex-England manager Don Revie, saw the team struggle badly, culminating in a dismal appearance at the 1979 Gulf Cup.

The 1980s were about to bring a dramatic change of direction and fortune.

On May 25, 1981, the heads of state of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, hosted by Sheikh Zayed in Abu Dhabi, signed an agreement that brought into being the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The UAE, barely a decade old, was now at the heart of positive change taking place in the region, and so it was only fitting that the next Gulf Cup of Nations would take place in Abu Dhabi in March 1982.

At the newly completed Zayed Sports City stadium, the hosts, now managed by Iranian coach Heshmat Mohajerani, defeated Qatar 1-0 in the opening match thanks to Fahad Khamees’s solitary goal. High above in the stadium, Sheikh Zayed beamed with pride.

The UAE finished in a modest fourth place, but you could pinpoint that tournament as the moment the national team began to develop an identity.

Economically, the country was flourishing as the oil industry boomed. At the same time, an ever growing population was experiencing a cultural explosion.

The rise of VHS saw the country flooded with bootleg copies of Hollywood films and, following the launch of MTV in 1981, the latest music videos; television series from around the world were beamed into our living rooms; and radio stations played the latest chart hits.

The wonderfully colourful 1982 World Cup in Spain would have a profound effect on the future of Emirati football – mainly thanks to a gifted Brazilian team that included the likes of Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Eder and Junior. No first names were needed.

That team fell cruelly short of winning the World Cup but it mattered little; the world was smitten by a style of football seemingly from another planet.

Many of the players who would make up the UAE’s World Cup squad in 1990 credit Spain 82 as an inspiration.

More importantly, that World Cup convinced Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, who would go on to lead the UAE FA with distinction for the rest of the decade, that the Brazilian model was the right one for Emirati footballers.

So in 1984, in came Carlos Alberto Parreira – who had overseen the Kuwaiti team at the 1982 World Cup – to take charge of the UAE national team. The improvement was dramatic.

The UAE had never taken part in a World Cup qualifying campaign, and yet at the first opportunity, Parreira took a young team within sight of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

Heartbreak, however, was just around the corner. An injury time goal by Iraq left the Emirati team and supporters devastated. In The Lights of Rome, Parreira spoke of “bringing the players back to life”.

The dream of playing in the World Cup for that generation of players was now as distant as ever. Underdogs don’t often get second chances.

And yet the improvement on the pitch continued, with the UAE finishing second at the 1988 Gulf Cup of Nations after putting on some inspired performances.

By the time the qualification campaign for the 1990 World Cup in Italy had come around, Parreira had departed, to be replaced by another legendary Brazilian: Mario Zagalo, winner of the 1958 World Cup as player and the 1970 one as a coach.

He had a formidable task on his hands. Having come so close to reaching the World Cup four years earlier, the chances of the UAE making it to Italy were considered far slimmer this time around. For a start, the format of qualification was significantly tougher, requiring the team finish in the top two of the Final Round group campaign taking place in Singapore. Zagalo’s men would have to overcome South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, North Korea and China to get to Italy.

Few supporters believed qualification was possible, the media even less so. Newspapers buried the team’s news in its sports pages and there was not even an Emirati television commentary team present in Singapore for the team’s opening match.

What followed, in October 1989, has left an indelible mark on UAE history, both in a sporting and cultural sense, and became the inspiration behind the making of the documentary The Lights of Rome.

The uninspired start; then a barely credible comeback win over China; a UAE team reborn, and an Emirati public reawaken; and final-day drama that left commentator Adnan Hamad memorably weeping that he “could see the Lights of Rome now”.

The players would soon be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Diego Maradona, Marco van Basten and Lothar Matthaus.

In Italy, the UAE’s job was practically impossible as they landed in a group with Colombia, Yugoslavia and the eventual champions West Germany. Yet results hardly mattered.

In The Lights of Rome, the players speak of being ambassadors for the country, of representing the flag with pride.

There was Adnan Talyani, the country’s finest ever talent. Goalkeepers Muhsin Musabah and Abdulqadir Hassan. Fahad and Nasser Khamees. The Meer twins. Abdulrahman Al Haddad and his childhood friends and World Cup heroes Ali Thani and Khalid Ismail. The names of these players are still remembered.

The boys of the Golden Generation put the UAE on the map, in more ways than one.

Ali Khaled is a freelance sports writer, former The National journalist and director of The Lights of Rome