Fabio De Lima wants to do 'something special' for UAE at Asian Cup

Brazilian-born forward, now a leading player in Emirati football, confident of national team's chances after opening win over Hong Kong

Fabio De Lima, right, celebrates with UAE teammates during their win over Hong Kong in the Asian Cup in Qatar on Sunday, January 14, 2024. Photo: UAEFA
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With debut made, finally, in a major international tournament, Fabio De Lima is determined to give back to the country that afforded him the opportunity.

The UAE forward, born in Brazil but naturalised in 2020, has become a standout performer in Emirati football since arriving at Al Wasl in 2014. With the Dubai club, De Lima has scored close to 200 goals, his 156 in the UAE top-flight lifting him to fourth in the competition’s all-time list.

Having first represented the national team in October 2020, De Lima is now an integral part of that side, too. On Sunday, he helped the UAE to a 3-1 win in their 2023 Asian Cup opener against Hong Kong in Qatar, providing the national team, semi-finalists in the past two editions, a strong start to what they hope will be another positive campaign.

Speaking afterwards, as his tournament bow began to sink in, De Lima’s delight was obvious.

“For me, I’m very happy to represent the national team,” he told The National. “I’m a long time in the country, and this for me is amazing. For myself, for my career. I give my best always for the country and for the national team.

“And, especially, we want to do something special for the fans, for the people born in the country, for the people living in the country. So we’re focused on that.”

Back in Brazil, De Lima’s mother and brothers watched Group C’s opening fixture on television, no doubt glued to his performance as they always are, irrespective of the seven-hour time difference.

De Lima, who struck the crossbar deep into the first half at the Khalifa International Stadium in Al Rayyan, was thousands of kilometres away, intent simply on ensuring his side kicked off the tournament with three points. Mission accomplished.

On Thursday the UAE take on a Palestine side playing for much more than a place in the knockout stages or professional pride, before they conclude the pool on January 23 against Iran, three-time Asian Cup champions and one of the current tournament favourites.

Yet the Hong Kong win sets the UAE up well for a top-two finish that will secure a spot in the last 16.

“First game, we know the pressure for everybody; before we were a little bit nervous,” De Lima said. “But when we go to the pitch we make a good game, a tough game.

“It’s so important for us that we take three points. In such a short tournament, we know it’s very important to start with a win. And we’re very happy.

“Now we have two more games, we focus on the next game against Palestine. Again, we have to win against them. We are focused to take three more points.”

De Lima, 30, is evidently growing more familiar with what Bento expects from him. The Portuguese, who previously coached his homeland at the 2014 World Cup and then South Korea at the 2022 tournament in Qatar, was appointed last July, and began his tenure with six straight victories.

Defeat in a December 30 friendly to Oman is the one blot on Bento’s copybook. Remarkably, he represents the fifth UAE manager De Lima has worked under in his three-and-a-bit years with the team.

Even in the short time with Bento, though, De Lima has been impressed.

“The coach is from Europe, he has a little bit different style from the last manager [former Wasl manager Rodolfo Arruabarrena],” De Lima said. “We follow what he wants - and I think we follow that well.

“You saw in the first seven games with him, we lost only to Oman. But in this competition, we have more difficult games to come. But we will be ready in the next games and, hopefully, we take the points to pass to the next round and then we see what happens in the second round.

“Step by step our team will stay together, and Inshallah, we go to the final.”

Updated: January 15, 2024, 10:57 AM