Italia 90, Gulf Cup success and hosting Messi, Ronaldo and Maradona in the UAE

With the UAE celebrating 50 years, we look back at a half-century in the country

Members of the UAE's triumphant 2007 Gulf Cup team who beat Oman 1-0 in the final.
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It remains the UAE’s greatest footballing achievement, closer now to the country’s inception than it is to its landmark birthday.

In 1989, through the mud and the mental strain in Singapore, the UAE came from behind against South Korea to grab a 1-1 draw and qualify for the Fifa World Cup. Adnan Al Talyani’s strike pulled the UAE level at the Jurong Stadium and, with Qatar defeating China at the same time, the national team had done it. They survived a frantic, six-team final shootout for a place at Italia ’90.

“I can see the lights of Rome from here,” wept overcome Emirati commentator Adnan Hamad, a soon-famous line that later titled a documentary - The Lights of Roma [Anwar Roma] - chronicling the UAE’s passage to, and experience at, the 1990 World Cup.

At the tournament in Italy seven months later, the UAE were beaten in all three matches in a devilishly difficult Group D, but the highlights were still plentiful: the national anthem, sounded for the first time at football’s showpiece event, before the opening 2-0 defeat in Bologna against Colombia and Carlos Valderrama and Freddy Rincon; Khalid Ismail’s history-making goal at San Siro in the 5-1 loss in Milan to West Germany, the European powerhouses that would go on to lift the trophy; Ali Thani finding the net in the 4-1 reverse to a talent-packed Yugoslavia.

The UAE exited at the group stage, but a squad comprising exclusively locally based players left with reputation enhanced. To this day, it represents the country's only participation in a World Cup.

Even before the UAE was formed in 1971, 50 years ago on Thursday just past, football constituted a popular pursuit. The beautiful game was introduced in the Trucial States by the British Army, when soldiers stationed there as far back as the mid-1940s would play in their units primarily to keep up morale. At the same time, it attracted interested local observers.

However, soon after the birth of the nation, football became regulated and better organised. In 1972, the UAE Football Association was founded under the leadership of Sheikh Mubarak bin Mohammed Al Nahyan, a body set up to govern the beautiful game and help structure the league competitions.

Al Nasr captured the inaugural championship. During that 1972/73 campaign, the Dubai side hosted a Santos team replete with World Cup winners such as Carlos Alberto and a certain Edson Arantes do Nascimento - more widely recognised as Pele - on a makeshift sandy pitch near Dubai’s creek. In 1978, European champions Liverpool came to town to inaugurate the opening of Al Maktoum Stadium, the last of four grounds built in Dubai during that time.

Dr Mohamed Kassala holding the European Cup with Phil Thompson of Liverpool. Liverpool were in the UAE to play a friendly match against Al Nasr at Al Maktoum Stadium, on May 26 1978. Photo Courtesy Dr Mohamed Kassala's Private Collection

From there, high-level footballers and their clubs have frequented the UAE: George Weah and Fabio Cannavaro, both at one time the Fifa World Player of the Year, have plied their trade in the Emirates; Diego Maradona, of course, as manager; so too Carlos Alberto Parreira, a World Cup-winning coach; Zlatko Dalic jumped almost right from managing Al Ain to leading Croatia to the most recent World Cup final.

The infrastructure has developed alongside the country's footing footprint. Now, the UAE’s collection of marquee football venues includes Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi, the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain, and the significantly refurbished Al Maktoum Stadium.

Successes on the pitch have helped thrust forward Emirati football. For the national team, a home victory in the 2007 Gulf Cup, sealed by Ismail Matar’s goal in the final against Oman in Abu Dhabi, was matched by recapturing the crown in Bahrain in 2013. Omar Abdulrahman’s solo goal in the showpiece, setting up the 2-1 extra-time triumph against Iraq, was evidence of the burgeoning team's prodigious talent. Winger Ismail Al Hammadi was the man to settle the match and secure the title.

It fell within another period of prosperity for the UAE, far removed from their 1990 vintage. Mahdi Ali’s Under-23 side, with a core that had delivered the country's first Asian Football Confederation (AFC) crown with the 2008 AFC U-19 Championship, dazzled in the Emirates' debut at the Olympics. They performed brilliantly at London 2012 against Uruguay, Senegal and hosts Great Britain, even if they did not advance from their pool.

Three years later, almost the same group shone at the Asian Cup in Australia, the standout moment the quarter-final victory against Japan on penalties, instigated by Abdulrahman’s “Panenka” from the spot.

The UAE would lose the semi-final 2-0 to the tournament hosts, yet soon thereafter they overcame Iraq for bronze. It marked their best finish on foreign soil in the continent’s premier tournament; in 1996, while holding the event at home, the UAE were beaten in the final by Saudi Arabia.

Celebration has not, though, been confined to the men’s national team. Their female counterparts emerged victorious in successive years from 2010 in the West Asian Football Federation Women's Championship.

On the club scene, Al Ain’s coronation as Asian Champions League winners in 2003 – the first iteration of the rebranded competition – is still unrivalled, even if the Garden City side nearly replicated the feat two years later, finishing runners-up. Al Ahli and Al Ain, once more, did the same in 2015 and 2016.

Some solace, though, could be gleaned those years in Ahmed Khalil and Abdulrahman each being crowned Asia’s footballer of the year – the only Emiratis to have received the honour.

More widely, the 2008 takeover of Manchester City Football Club by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, and his Abu Dhabi United Group has carried the UAE’s name far beyond the domestic or regional football scene. Since, City have lifted the English Premier League five times – the denouement to the first under the Abu Dhabi ownership, in the 2011/12 season, resides as one of the most memorable climaxes to a top-flight campaign – two FA Cups and six League Cups. Earlier this year, City finished runner-up in the Uefa Champions League, the first European Cup final in the club’s history.

Meanwhile, City Football Group has expanded its portfolio to include a plethora of clubs in Europe, Asia, Australasia, America, and South America. Locally, Sheikh Mansour’s Al Jazira are the current UAE champions.

In February, the capital club will contest the Fifa Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi, the fifth time the emirate has staged the event. The tournaments in 2009, 2010, 2017 and 2018 have provided a multitude of memorable moments, such as Lionel Messi inspiring Barcelona to a record sixth title in a calendar year, and Samuel Eto’o firing Inter Milan to a first Club World Cup success.

In 2017, Jazira came within a marginal offside of potentially knocking out Real Madrid, only for Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to turn around the semi-final. Twelve months later, Al Ain went one step further, finishing runner-up in the global tournament, beaten in the final by a history-making Madrid.

Fifa’s faith in the UAE to stage the postponed 2021 Club World Cup – Japan were to initially host – comes not only from those four previous editions, but from a long line of successfully run events. In 2003, the country showcased the Fifa U-20 World Cup (then known as the Fifa World Youth Championship); 10 years on, the Fifa U-17 World Cup. In the former, Matar was awarded the Golden Ball as the home side reached the quarter-finals.

Still, the biggest football tournament to take place in the Emirates, certainly in terms of scale, was the Asian Cup, in 2019. Expanded for the first time in its history from 16 to 24 teams, the competition extended to three venues in Abu Dhabi, two in Dubai, two in Al Ain and one in Sharjah. It was eventually won by Qatar.

With the world gripped by a the pandemic little more than a year later, the UAE has become a regular hub for training camps, Asian Champions League matches and World Cup qualifiers, stepping up when travel restrictions had decimated the football calendar.

What's more, the expectation is that the Emirates will once again become the destination for clubs from around the world to undergo winter or mid-season training camps, or play in lucrative friendlies or exhibition tournaments. In the past, those have included Manchester City, Manchester United, Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal. A lot of those opportunities have been made possible by prominent sponsorship agreements with the country’s two principal airlines, Etihad Airways and Emirates.

Last week, the first anniversary of Maradona's death served as another reminder of the all-time great's affiliation to the UAE. The 1986 World Cup winner shocked world football in 2011, when he agreed to manage Al Wasl, the hugely decorated Dubai club that had for some time then struggled. The UAE top flight had embarked on its professional era only three years before - another decisive juncture in its football development - but had now attached possibly the most prominent name in the game. Maradona would go on to manage Fujairah, and act too as Dubai Sports ambassador during a seven-year stint in the country.

"I have learnt a lot in Dubai and I admit it openly," he said in a 2013 interview with Arabic daily Al Ittihad. "I learnt about calm and spiritual peace from the Emiratis in particular and the Arab people in general.

"My life was like Formula One in the past, going at full throttle, but I am now experiencing this wonderful tranquillity. Living here among the Arabs has changed a lot of my ideas and beliefs, and this has been a very important experience in my life."

Updated: December 04, 2021, 10:12 AM