On June 9th, 1990, at 5:00pm (Italy time), United Arab Emirates (UAE) made history by playing their first World Cup match against Columbia under Brazilian manager Carlos Alberto Gomes Parreira in front of a crowd of approximately thirty thousand at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara in Bologna. The same year that saw quite a few important historical moments take place, like the arrest of Panamanian dictator – Manuel Noriega, release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years behind bars, the reunification of East and West Germany and the beginning of the Gulf war.
The Middle Eastern country with a then population of 1.9 M was an ecstatic bunch. Granted the fact that they had lost all three of their group games against Colombia, eventual Champions West Germany and Yugoslavia, it did not deter the young nation from celebrating one of its own achievements. The year UAE participated in the World Cup. The year they faced the likes of Carlos Valderrama, Jürgen Klinsmann and Lothar Matthäus.
British soldiers, who were present in the country due to mutual political reasons, introduced the sport in UAE during the early 19th century. It picked on from there with the help of the generations of students that would come back home after graduating from their respective universities. Simultaneously, the period also saw the likes of various local clubs being formed in the kingdoms of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
By the time the various sovereignties unified to form the United Arab Emirates in 1971, the English presence had declined and so did the influence of the sport. The governing body of football in the country – the United Arab Emirates Football Association (UAE FA) was founded in the same year and was recognized by FIFA in 1972, a feat considering the time since the country officially began to exist.
UAE managed to create some magnificent athletes (football) in the past. Adnan Khamees Al –Talyani – being the most outstanding and the most accomplished out of the lot. Having represented only a single club (Al Shaab) for twenty-one years talks a lot about his attitude towards the sport in relation to loyalty and commitment. Something one does not see quite often in today’s time. His achievements are also noticed at the international stage, as he currently ranks 8th in number of caps earned with 164 scoring 50 + goals.
Omar Al Raisi, an Emirati football columnist for The National and Goal.com, based in Abu Dhabi, compares Al-Talyani to Maradona, emphasizing on their perpetual love for the sport and the nation.
“Adnan Al Talyani is like the Maradona of UAE. My opinion is that he was a great player and was instrumental in taking UAE at the 1990 World Cup. Great player, great skills and a very hard worker on and off the pitch. He is by far the most recognizable player in the history of UAE without a doubt. Off course there are other great players like Ismail Mattar and now Hamdan Al Kamali rose to fame with his transfer to Lyon but Adnan Al Talyani is up there on the top!”
So what’s materialized since 1990? One would expect the country to only progress from then onwards but that was not the case…. entirely.
Well, lets start by looking at the cons. Firstly and most importantly is the role of top management involved. They, having only turned the local UAE league professional in 2008, expected a lot within this period. A total of 20 national team coach’s have come in and have left instantly since 1990, with the longest serving being the recent Slovenian Srečko Katanec who was able to manage for almost 23 months. One could see similar stats with other nations as well, but for a young team to grow and develop, a presence of a solid and fixed bond is necessary. That was and still is not the case here.
The same can be seen on club level as well. Managers are brought in prior to a season and sacked within a period of three of four games when the performances are not meeting expectations.
The lack of motivation by player to perform towards achieving a move to Europe is also a hindering element. This is mainly because of the ease of life and the monetary compensation received. Plenty of money, family and the fact that they do not have to deal with other cultures and languages would definitely raise the question of why would these “top” players in the country want to leave?
Why don’t we see a lot of Emirati footballers in Europe? I asked Omar.
He believes there are a lot of reasons for this,
“Firstly, a lot of players prefer to live here as they have a comparatively easy life here, they are paid very good, the league is not very long nor has a lot of pressure, sun is shining 24/7, its luxury, why would you leave that?
Secondly clubs do block players to go abroad and play hardball when someone comes in for a player, like you mentioned in case of Ismail Mattar.
Thirdly I think factors like youth development, the reserve league and the second division are not really up to a standard level and needs to be looked at very seriously. But I think improvements have been made in the past few years and more focus should be on Youth Development. Players should be allowed to leave if a big club comes in and Hamdan Al Kamli’s case will pave that way in the future.”
The objection of certain clubs to let the players go is a factor. Yes, it is weird and personally cannot understand their reasoning behind this. The best example would be that of prolific UAE midfielder Ismail Mattar who was not allowed to leave his club Al Wahda, few seasons ago – the same club finally succumbing to let UAE’s next star Hamdan Al Kamali to try to make it with Lyon.
And then comes the exclusion of involving kids of other nationalities in the league structure. For example, growing up playing on streets as Asians, we would only hope for a chance to touch and feel the grass that our compatriots are playing on. A kid of any nationality other than an Emirati could join a football club but cannot participate in team matches. He could only train with the team. This literally would eventually causes a negative effect on the kid, the team and football as a whole. A talented kid cannot develop and showcase his talent whereas for the club, it loses its shot at having their young Emirati players participate in terms of game time with other nationalities eventually hindering their personal and footballing growth as well.
None of the clubs or UAE FA actively promotes the sport towards the high expat diaspora that exists in the country. Al Jazira had managed to do so for a while but with their foreign CEO resigning before the current season, we do not see or hear any of it any more. I am quite confident that if these clubs start involving other nationalities in their teams, they will eventually manage to fill up the stadiums an hour before the game begins.
But that is not the case.
Instead, they end up relying on paying big money bringing in high-profile players who have passed their prime to the country so that the Emirati players get some sort of exposure to their experience. Players like Phillip Cocu, Ali Daei, Abedi Pele, Hossam Hassan have played in the country with recent stars being Fabio Cannavaro, Ricardo Oliviera,Grafite, Asamoah Gyan, Lucas Neil and Mark Bresciano. An appreciated gesture from the league, as the intention is that it would help the younger players to learn from their experience, but seems like its not helping. If you take a look at the top 12 scorers of the current UAE Pro League – not even a single Emirati features.
On a more toned-down token, the country had lost one of its rising stars recently. Twenty-one year old – Theyab Awana who was a victim in a fatal car accident as he was returning back from training. If you recall, he became an instant YouTube sensation with his back-heel penalty that he scored in a friendly against Lebanon.
Moving on to the brighter side of UAE football since 1990. There had been two achievements in terms of tournaments won. One would be the 2005 Kirin Cup, a three-team tournament organized in Japan by the Kirin Brewery Company. Other being the Gulf Cup of Nations, a tournament played among the GCC countries, in 2007. Yes, not a lot but still counts.
Most significantly, the presence of UAE in the 2012 summer Olympics in London is a massive step towards their return on the global footballing scene. Participating in the event for the first time ever provides an opportunity for the young blood to show what they are capable of. In a recent statement to Fifa, Hamdan Al Kamali, hoped that the Olympics could act as a facilitator for more Emirati footballers to move abroad.
“I hope that taking part in the London Olympics will attract attention to Emirati players and that they’ll get the opportunity to play abroad.” – Hamdan Al Kamali – UAE International at French Ligue 1 side Olympique Lyonnais.
Omar’s feelings were not hidden either. He says he,
“Felt proud, patriotic, and very happy for the team and the country as it was the first time in the history to qualify for the Olympics.”
And the nation’s people – both locals and expats, echo his sentiment.
The achievements of these young players were also appreciated and acknowledged by President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, as he awarded each and individual member of the Olympic team a sum of Dhs 500,000 (~ $ 136,128). Imagine; if they go on to win the tournament!
So how does the future look for the country categorized as a high-income developing country?
Anxiously very bright according to Al Raisi,
“I would like to see the UAE Pro League to be upgraded to 16 teams, it should be more competitive and intense and I think 16 teams will help that. I would love the games to have English commentary for the Expat fans and for it to be promoted more. The Clubs will have to invest more into the structure and youth development of their teams. Its really difficult to get sponsors for the club as their games are not distributed to a wide audience, its to a niche market. So it is not easy and step-by-step they can improve. I would love to watch UAE play in the World Cup one day.”
With players such as Hamdan Al Kamali, Ahmed Khalil and Ismail Al Hammadi along with few others on the verge of representing the nation in a few days time, UAE will have a reason to rejoice again. No matter, what the outcome of their performances this summer will be, this bunch will surely provide something to look forward to.
Now, it is on us, the loyal fans to provide the support system to this growing group and UAE football as a whole as it works hard towards transitioning onto the bigger platform. It starts all over again as the country is scheduled to face Uruguay (26th July), Team GB (29th July) & Senegal (1st August).
PS: A very special thanks Omar Al Raisi (@Dantani) on his whole-hearted contribution towards this piece.