On the eve of Asia group play in London 2012 qualifying, Mahdi Ali had a dream. Not in the vague sense of "hope" or "goal". His dream was a genuine "images flitting through head while sleeping" event.
"Even before our first game, in Australia, I had a dream and I told the players," the coach of the UAE's Olympic team said. "I said, 'I will not tell you about the dream. I will tell you only after the last game, in Uzbekistan.'"
Six months later, in Tashkent, the young Emiratis defeated Uzbekistan 3-2 to secure the country's first football berth in the Summer Games. The changing room was a madhouse of revelry, but the players interrupted their celebrations to ask Mahdi Ali to reveal his dream. Not yet, he said.
An hour later, in the more intimate setting of the bus taking the team to the airport, the players called again for their coach to tell them what he had seen, and he described it to his players.
"I dreamed that all the team, with the players, were in the London bus, the double-decker bus," he said. "And in the dream we were someplace in London and going to the camp or the hotel. When the bus stopped in front of the hotel, something happened to the bus, and something crushed the bus from the top. I was out of the bus and watching this.
"And some damage happened to the bus, but after that the players all came out from the bus. And my explanation to the players was that I was having faith that you will qualify, but it will be a very difficult time.
"That was my dream."
Their path had, indeed, been difficult; halfway through the process they were last in Group B. But with three consecutive victories they won it, capped by the rally from 2-0 in cold and soggy Uzbekistan.
Perhaps the dream helped Mahdi Ali maintain his confidence; even at the low ebb of two points from three games he believed that the players he had coached since they were children would persevere and reach their goal.
"I never lost my faith and my confidence that we could qualify," he said during a lengthy conversation with The National in the Football Association's theatre room. "What I knew was that if we won the final three games, we will qualify."
The progression to the Summer Games is a tribute to the players, but also to the 45-year-old Emirati often referred to by his countrymen as "Captain Mahdi".
He planned the campaign and led and shaped those young men, honing minds and bodies and also appealing to their curiosity. The dream! What could it be?
On the macro level, Mahdi Ali has been determined to play football in a way that fit the talents of his squad; he would not countenance the grafting of an alien style onto native habits and preferences.
"We have one style of play, and we are more close to the South American national teams, the way we play games, because we have the same bodies, the same coordination and speed, and the quality of our technique makes us similar to them," he said. "We play very compact, and we try to play as a team and play our own style."
He also made a point of fostering a sense of unity and community.
"We don't play individually; we play as a team," he said. "We always are close to each other, inside or outside the pitch. We feel like we are a family, the staff, the technical staff, medical staff and the players. Everybody knows his responsibilities and the limits and boundaries of the team. We have a programme, and everyone knows what is needed from him."
Mahdi Ali sweats over the small stuff; he believes seemingly innocuous events can mean the difference between victory and defeat. He developed this outlook while undergoing his formal training.
"When you go to take a coaching course, they don't give you all the small details," he said. "They give you general information. As a coach, you have to find out the small details and have a sharp eye for what is good for you and bad for you, and it's a process of learning."
He cited two examples of the sort of details learnt, not taught.
"During training, I know every player and what he likes and doesn't like. I see one player, and he always puts his socks up when he trains, but one day before the game he puts his socks down. And many people would think this is normal, but for me I don't think it is. It's a habit and something you always do, and if you change there must be a reason. Some problems with his calf, perhaps. And I have to ask if he feels pain. 'How are you doing? Are you good?' Maybe he is carrying an injury and has not told you."
His second example came from studying Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in the minutes before Real Madrid and Barcelona went into extra time during a game last season. "I saw all the players and staff make one circle, and it's a very close circle, and the coach is alone in the middle, and I wondered why this was done."
Mahdi Ali asked a visitor to guess at the conclusion he drew. "Getting the players to reconnect by proximity? Making sure the players could hear the coach in a noisy stadium?"
Mahdi Ali's deduction: "In a big match, there are many cameras, and they show the coach on TV, and your opponents can see it, too. Sometimes you can make a signal with your hand," and he made an arcing motion with his hand, "and that means you want them to play long balls and your opponent will know everything if they can see you on TV. If you are in a tight circle, the cameras cannot see you."
He added: "I always look into small details. They make a big difference and can make you win or lose."
In outlining his management style, he described a melding of processes he learned as an executive with the Road and Transport Authority of Dubai with those he acquired on the training ground.
"Coaching is human development; as a coach you are managing employees and trying to achieve goals," he said. "You are a director trying to take the maximum output from your employees. You have to have a good plan, and a Plan B, and it is the same in football."
He believes that studying champion coaches can be of great value. "I read many books and see many videos," he said. He is an admirer of Arsenal's Arsene Wenger as well as Guardiola.
He once spent 12 days in Barcelona, studying their systems. He met Guardiola and watched four training sessions with the first team.
"In these 12 days I saw players from eight years old to the first team, going from nine in the morning to nine in the evening. I wish I could have stayed longer."
When the plan comes to fruition, and in football that means victory, the rewards for a coach are sublime, he said.
"What makes me always like this job is that when you see people happy after the win, that feeling is amazing. I cannot explain it, but I feel it, and it's an amazing feeling, and I always want to have this feeling."
Mahdi Ali has had another dream.
He has told his players. But, again, he will not describe the dream. From context it is natural to wonder if it pertains to results at London 2012.
He has revealed that the quarter-finals are his goal. Is his dream something beyond that? A semi-final at Wembley, perhaps? Seeing his players on a podium receiving medals? Is it on a different stage entirely? Perhaps coaching a UAE senior team who qualify for the World Cup? Certainly, he must be a candidate for that open position.
Again, he prefers to keep his own counsel. "I will not say I have already achieved it, or whether it will take one year or two years or three," he said. "But someday I may speak of this last dream."
Mahdi Ali's career in highlights
- Joined the Al Ahli youth team at age six. Rose through the system and made his first-team debut at age 16 in 1983.
- A midfielder, he scored twice as 10-man Ahli overcame a 1-0 deficit and beat Al Shabab 3-2 in the 1988 President’s Cup final.
- In and out of the national team for four years while they were coached by Carlos Alberto Parreira and then Mario Zagallo. Injuries prevented him from making an appearance in an official game.
- Was to travel with the UAE side to the 1990 World Cup in Italy, but an injury just before the departure date left him at home.
- Told in 1992 that his knee was too damaged to continue his career, but he travelled to Lexington, Kentucky, in the US, and the American surgeon David Caborn repaired his knee sufficiently that he played another six seasons.
- Began coaching in 1998 with the U10 side at Al Ahli.
- Received a degree in electric engineering from the Dubai College of Technology.
- Worked for DubaiMunicipality in the Road and Transport Authority.
- Appointed assistant coach with the U16 team in 2003, putting him in contact with several members of the future Olympic team.
- Led the U19 team to the championship of the 2008 Asian Cup, and then focused on coaching.
- Led the U20 team to the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup.
- In 2010, led the U23 team to the Gulf Cup and the silver medal at the Asian Games in China.
- In 2011/12, led the U23s to the London 2012 Olympic Games.