We take our dreams, says Al Ain defender Erik after Asian Champions League triumph

Brazilian was injured for final against Yokohama but played key role in UAE club's march to glory

Erik celebrates after scoring for Al Ain during the Asian Champions League semi-final second leg against Al Hilal in Riyadh on April 23, 2024. Getty Images
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Erik didn’t play, but his delight was in no way diminished.

“We take our dreams,” beamed Al Ain’s Brazil-born defender, Asian Champions League winner’s medal dangling from his neck. “Thank God for this moment."

Erik had watched it all unfurl from the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium sidelines. Injured moments after drawing Al Ain level in the semi-final second leg with Al Hilal last month, his race to reach the showpiece had proven a step too far.

He sat out the first leg against Yokohama F Marinos, travelling all the way to Japan and then departing the team bus in tears upon arrival at Yokohama International Stadium. He had to be consoled by captain Khalid Essa and members of the Al Ain backroom staff.

Again, on Saturday night as Al Ain tried to turn around a 2-1 deficit from Japan and chased a second Champions League title and first in more than two decades, Erik had to play the role of chief support. For the 100 minutes and more, he was one of the near-25,000 packed inside the UAE club’s glittering home ground who could only watch Al Ain's latest quest for the title unfold.

“For a player it’s very difficult to stay outside,” Erik told The National afterwards, thankfully, his team had come through, 5-1 on the night and 6-3 on aggregate. “For me, it’s more difficult than playing. Of course, when we go on the pitch [to play] we feel nervous, anxious.

“But outside I almost die, bro. I don’t like this. I want to play.”

Irrespective of his watching brief in the final, Erik played a pivotal role in Al Ain’s continental success. In the quarter-finals, he clearly embraced the challenge of foiling Cristiano Ronaldo and Al Nassr, at times involved in some gamesmanship with the Portuguese superstar.

"It’s not personal," Erik told The National after the 1-0 first leg win in the UAE. "Cristiano for me, I don’t know, he’s like my inspiration."

In the last four, Erik was inspired, first at home against Al Hilal, when Al Ain triumphed 4-2 to snap the record four-time Asian champions’ 34-match winning streak. In the return leg in Riyadh, the full-back’s 12th-minute equaliser cancelled out Ruben Neves' early penalty. Ultimately, it secured Al Ain’s spot in the final, the Garden City club going through 5-4 on aggregate.

Little wonder that, on Saturday night in the bowels of Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, Erik could not do anything but smile as wide as the second leg scoreline. Al Ain, twice runners-up since that peak campaign in 2003 – in 2005 and 2016 – had finally confirmed another Champions League crown for the club and the UAE, too.

“Very proud,” Erik said of his contribution to the cause. “For me, this is more important. This is important because a player wants to be part of the moment, and I feel like I give the best for the team. And it helped.

“The goal [against Hilal] is my best moment in football. But also, I give my energy, my power every game, from the first in the group phase. We qualified after four games; we were the first team in the Asia to go to second phase and I was part of this.

"I feel like this – I feel happy before Al Hilal also – because I was part of being this champion.”

That Erik, 23, took his exclusion from the final line-up with such poise illustrates his commitment to putting the club first. He had done everything possible to make the team, including playing 90 minutes against Kalba and 45 against Al Wahda in Adnoc Pro League matches sandwiched between the two Champions League legs.

He agreed with manager Hernan Crespo that he wasn’t at his usual level to be selected for the showpiece.

“I don’t come in for the [second leg], but I agree 100 per cent with my coach for putting [Kodjo] Laba on the bench instead. He made a very good decision.”

It was justified. Left out of the squad for the quarter-final and semi-final, Laba was introduced on the hour on Saturday with the score at 2-1 in the game and 3-3 on aggregate. He would register Al Ain’s fourth and fifth goals.

Al Ain 5 Yokohama F Marinos 1 - in pictures

Al Ain were officially Asia’s best team. It had taken a mighty effort to get over the line.

“For me, there’s more than one secret,” Erik said. “Also the details: we score outside our home, the support of the fans at home. It was a very good moment because we needed the support.

“When it comes to the Champions League, and the fans come to a full stadium, this gives another energy for us. This, for me, is the secret also.

“And God knows the secrets. When God wants, everything comes. You saw against Al Hilal, the ball did not come inside our goal, we attack one, two times and score. I scored with the right leg, which is not my best. When God wants, he is incredible.”

Incredibly, courtesy of the Champions League win, Al Ain will next year take their place in the first edition of the expanded Fifa Club World Cup. They featured once before in the tournament, in its previous guise, when they memorably defeated South American champions River Plate on penalties at home to become the first UAE side to reach the final.

Eventually, they finished runners-up, to Real Madrid no less.

That was 2018, a little more than a year before Erik signed with Al Ain. In 2025, his team will be among the 32 clubs making history in the US. Madrid will be there again, as will the likes of Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Inter Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, River, Palmeiras and Flamengo.

Understandably, it whets the appetite.

“When I received the offer from Al Ain, one year before they were in the Club World Cup, winning against River Plate and went to final against Real Madrid," Erik said. "And I come one year after.

“To learn about the club and see which club I will play in, I went to the internet and checked. And I saw, ‘Oh, Al Ain go to last year's Club World Cup’. And, since I’ve wanted to go to Club World Cup to play against Real Madrid for four years.

“It’s like I come from my dream. I come from my dream to take trophies, to play in the Club World Cup, for big cups. And this will the best Club World Cup in history, in America next year. We take our place, and this is very good. We go to higher level.”

It could be argued that Champions League glory has lifted Al Ain there already.

“I'm a blessed guy,” Erik smiled. “I am 23 years old; four years here I take three cups [domestic league and League Cup]. And I want to say thanks God because players want this moment.

“I come here to make history, to make beautiful history. And God gave me this.”

Updated: May 27, 2024, 11:41 AM