Can Al Ain reign? Team just one game away from being world’s best

Fans excited ahead of big Club World Cup final on Saturday after River Plate win

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - December 19, 2018: An Al Ain fan celebrates his teams victory before the game between Real Madrid and Kashima Antlers in the Fifa Club World Cup semi final. Wednesday the 19th of December 2018 at the Zayed Sports City Stadium, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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They are 90 minutes away from being crowned champions of the world, but whatever the result in Saturday’s Club World Cup final, fans believe that the heroics of Al Ain’s footballers will have a lasting impact.

“It means a lot, not just to the city, but for the whole UAE,” said Suhail Saif, who was raised in Al Ain and says he played in the club’s youth team before giving up his sporting ambitions to pursue a career in mechanical engineering.

He was in the crowd to watch Al Ain’s historic victory over South American giants River Plate on Tuesday night, a shock result that has featured prominently in sports news all over the world.

“People around the world are now hearing about us,” said the 30-year-old, who joked that he was “born with an Al Ain flag in my right hand”.

“This final will be a special event and will show people there are other beautiful cities in the UAE, not just Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The win was a great night. I feel like we won the cup already.”

Khaled Almansoori, 27, who was raised in Al Ain, agreed. He watched the semi-final in a coffee shop but is now trying to find a ticket for the sold-out final.

“Being in such a big game will benefit Al Ain in many ways,” he said.

“Not just in sport, but culture and tourism as well. People will look us up from all over the world now, and maybe when they come to the UAE they will think to visit Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain as well.”

At the Hazza bin Zayed stadium, where Al Ain battled to a 2-2 draw with River before winning the tie in a tense penalty shootout, there was little sign of the drama.

Fans cheer before the game between River Plate and Al Ain in the Fifa Club World Cup. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Fans cheer before the game between River Plate and Al Ain in the Fifa Club World Cup. Chris Whiteoak / The National

However, at the club’s Megastore, shop assistant Mohammed Imran, who has supported Al Ain since arriving in the UAE from India five years ago, was bleary-eyed. He said he had kept the doors open until 1am — three hours later than the normal closing time — to satisfy the demand for Al Ain replica tops and souvenirs after the match.

He was back at his post to ensure the shop was open at 10am on Wednesday with trade brisker than usual.

"The store was the busiest I have seen it," he said.

“All of the fans were happy, which means they bought a lot.”

All of the Al Ain fans The National spoke to agreed on two things yesterday as they looked ahead to the final. 

Firstly, they had been hoping for Real Madrid to overcome Kashima Antlers, from Japan, in the last semi-final on Wednesday night, despite the European champions presenting the far tougher challenge. And their wishes came true as the Madrid side came through with a convincing 3-1 win.  

Club officials agreed that a match against Europe’s football superpower would be good for Al Ain’s standing and finances. 

To put the two sides in to context, Al Ain's players are valued at about Dh65 million collectively, according to the estimate on the website Transfermarkt. Real Madrid's squad of Galacticos, meanwhile, would cost about Dh4.3 billion to assemble. Yet supporters said they wanted their side to be tested against the best.

Secondly, fans insisted they have a chance of winning, whoever they face. Few had predicted that the side would have any hope against River Plate, so they were hopeful their side would put up a good fight against the reigning champions. 


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Messages of support for Al Ain from across the Arab world flooded social media. Many people agreed with Zoran Mamic, the Croatian Al Ain coach, that reaching the final represented the greatest achievement in UAE football history, above even the side’s Asian Champions League victory in 2003.

“We did not expect this victory,” said Mustafa Abdulwahab, who was born in Al Ain in 1989 and is a lifelong fan. “We won the Asian cup, but this is bigger. I want to play Madrid, I want to see how we compare. And yes, it is possible [to win].”

“The Club World Cup means a lot to all of us, it is a historical moment,” said Yahya Al Blooshi, 30, who has followed Al Ain since he was a teenager.

“On Tuesday, I met a lot of River fans who said they were going to win but I told them Al Ain is not an easy team to beat.

“No one believed we would win and get to the final but we did it. Nothing is impossible in football and that is the message to our players.”

Ahmed Saif, 15, also dared to dream. “This was the hardest game in the UAE and we won,” he said. “Now I want to play Real Madrid. I think we can win.”

The success of Al Ain, the UAE’s most successful football club, was also being enjoyed by other sportsmen and women in the city.

Sidney Papka, an Al Ain volleyball coach, said he had to end practice early on Tuesday so that his players could go to the game. He watched the match in a bar.

“It was a very nice game,” the Brazilian, 46, said. “I like Al Ain, I like the people in Al Ain so of course I am supporting them. It was a big surprise, it was a game that was very hard to win. Now, who knows what can happen?”