From Saudi Arabia’s surprise 2-1 win over Argentina, to Morocco’s courageous race to the semi-finals, this World Cup has been one of pleasant surprises for the Arab world. However, in 1990, the UAE caused a stir of its own — simply by qualifying for the tournament.
The country was not yet 20 years old when it sent a team of amateur players, later dubbed the "golden generation", who went on to make their only World Cup appearance.
The UAE's road to Italia 90 reached a crescendo in Singapore in October 1989 — with the final round of Asian qualifiers, with a group that included South Korea, North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In 2014, two members of the UAE qualifying team, Ali Thani and Abdul Abdulrahman Al-Haddad, were flown out to Brazil to meet their former coach, Alberto Parreira, as part of an Image Nation documentary.
Thani said his teammates were a group of amateurs “making many sacrifices to play and represent our country”.
“Many had left their families, others left their jobs, just to be able to play in the World Cup qualifications. Nobody expected us to beat all the odds and qualify.
“I still remember the match we played in the qualification phase against China. Everybody was excited, determined to prove ourselves fit to play at the World Cup.”
After a 0-0 draw with North Korea, during the next match the UAE fell 1-0 behind to China, only for Khalil Mubarak to equalise in the 88th minute, followed by a stunning winning goal from Adnan Al Talyani. During the final match against South Korea, when it became apparent that the UAE would indeed qualify for the finals, commentator Adnan Hamad wept and said: “I can see the lights of Rome now.”
Drawn in Group D alongside Yugoslavia, Colombia and eventual champions West Germany, the UAE kicked off their campaign against the South Americans at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara in Bologna. Despite being knocked out during the group stages, the UAE’s very presence — alongside its first World Cup goal, from Khalid Imsail — made history.
Al-Haddad later said: “Playing in the World Cup is a great accomplishment that all countries dream to realise, achieving it requires a lot of hard work.”