Football in the UAE: ‘A footnote to society’ growing to become an international force

UAE club Al Ain made the FIFA Club World Cup final on Saturday, where they faced the biggest club in the world, Real Madrid. The score aside, it was a historic day for football in the UAE, and also football in the rest of the surrounding nations. 

For many nations in the world, football is the bread of life. When you think of football in South America, for example, it is easy to imagine children playing football without organisational structure: walking down to the local park with a battered football and playing football, just for the sake of it. Not necessarily with friends, not even with goals, just kicking a ball about, because that’s a way of life. In some Asian nations, it is the same. For football fans worldwide, football is a way in – it allows fans to enter a world that they become embroiled in. For other nations, it is a way out – a way to escape from every day life, a footnote to society.

In the United Arab Emirates, football is just that, a footnote. Despite this, it is growing. For most of Asia, the dominant sport is cricket. That doesn’t mean football is not loved, those who choose football as their desired pastime are into it as much as anyone on the planet. Aside from the fans, though, football is slightly different. It is seen more as a business venture rather than a sporting or leisure activity – not that the Premier League is that much better.

It is why the decision that Qatar will host the next World Cup, which by coincidence will be one week old this time in four years (yep, that’s right, the winter), caused mass outrage. The area isn’t rich in football. However, football is a global game and like all things in life, it has to grow and sometimes the only way to do that is spread your wings and cover new territory, which is what football did in Russia.

Football isn’t the forefront of thought in these nations, but it could be in a couple of decades.

Historically, the United Arab Emirates have not been a footballing nation. In terms of FIFA World Cup finals, Gulf countries – defined by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and their six member states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – have hardly featured. Saudi Arabia is the only exception, they made four successive appearances between 1994 and 2006, and of course featured in this years Russia World Cup.

There was however, weirdly, a trip to Italia 90 for the United Arab Emirates. Most qualification stories for nations in the Gulf are epic and romantic, this was no exception.

Pioneer Don Revie and the journey to Italia 90

But even more strange, the legendary ex-Leeds manager Don Revie is classed as the father of football in the UAE.

As mentioned, football is a money maker, and Revie was heavily criticised for moving here, with many claiming he was only there for the paycheques. The English media labelled him ‘Don Readies’, referring to the huge salary he would be paid by his new employers. His move was borderline treason at the time, with a 10-year football ban by the FA to follow.

Despite the tax-free salary, Revie was there to build a nation that was a foetus in the football world to become a giant, in terms of a World Cup qualification. The manager who led Leeds to league titles and European finals was credited with introducing many reforms in the country that built the foundations for the development.

“Dad was definitely a pioneer. He introduced tactical ideas and coaching techniques that had not been seen [in the Middle East] before. He was proud of what he did and what he achieved. He started introducing the professionalism that eventually helped the UAE qualify for the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy”, said Revie’s son Duncan.

Off the pitch, he brought a sense of professionalism and disciple to the national team, while on it, he brought a more direct and physical way. It didn’t quite work out for Revie on the pitch, with heavy defeats to Iraq and others, but off it, he changed a lot. The legendary Leeds boss stayed in the country, and coached Al Nasr for three years, before joining Egyptian giants Al Ahly.

Revie revitalised UAE football and the methods of training, and thirteen years after his appointment, UAE made their very first World Cup, under the management of Carlos Alberto Parreira. The Brazilian coach, coincidentally, holds the record for the most FIFA World Cup final appearances as a manager with six, most recently South Africa in their home 2010 World Cup.

The Emirati heroes tasted defeat in their debut game at the hands of Colombia, and their second game was even tougher – the mighty West Germany, with players such as Rudi Völler, Jürgen Klinsmann and Lothar Matthäus making up the team at the San Siro that day. The Germans won 5-1, but it was a proud day for the UAE, who were sadly knocked out of the tournament before their final game with Yugoslavia.

It wasn’t to be in Italy for UAE, but just getting there was a mighty moment for the tiny footballing nation. It was the start of the new era for football in the UAE.

How football in the UAE is becoming an international force

Italia 90, and the decade prior including the innovations of Don Revie and co, set in motion a trail of events that would see the UAE grow to the level of a recognised footballing nation, in Asia at least.

In London 2012, the UAE put up a stern performance, but were knocked out in the group stage by United Kingdom and a Uruguay team starring the likes of Edinson Cavani. One player who took the eye then, and still continues to do so, is Omar Abdulrahman.

Dubbed by some as ‘The Diamond in the Desert’, Abdulrahman is the star of the United Arab Emirates and will be the poster boy going into 2019’s Asian Cup. Born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Abdulrahman has been the talisman for UAE club Al-Ain for years now. His role in the team is as the supplier, which he does to perfection, with outstanding assist stats. However, what catches the eye, is his ability to run at defenders and weave in and out of opponents with seeming ease. His Fellaini-esque hair is iconic, with kids copying it, and his eye for a pass is destructive for his side. It begs the question – at age 27, will Omar Abdulrahman make the move to Europe? Manchester City, Arsenal, Benfica, Dortmund and Galatasaray have all offered to take on the skilful star, but he has opted to stay in the UAE.

Former Al Ain manager, who led Croatia to the World Cup final this year, Zlatko Dalic, said: “He’s the best player in Asia. A special player. A great player.”

Xavi, legend of Barcelona now plying his trade in Qatar, said: “A very good player, a very good talent. It’s important for him, for Arab players, for the country also [to play abroad]. Omar can be a pioneer and make it easier for other to follow.”

Should Abdulrahman move, he could evolve UAE football, but for now, he is content. He is a big fish in a small pond, but the organisers of football in the UAE will hope he stays, and becomes a big fish in a growing pond, for the league is growing and growing. Abdulrahman’s side, Al Ain, are the only UAE team to ever win the AFC Champions League. Nicknamed The Boss, they are the most decorated side in UAE domestic history.

Despite this, it wasn’t really until late in the last decade that money started being invested in the domestic game, with many investors spending money overseas on investments in superclubs – as seen when Manchester City’s wealthy Arab owners took over the club and tried to sign the likes of Kaka, who at the time was the best player in the world.

Football is now more popular with locals, but it didn’t have a fully professional league until a decade ago, with hundreds of millions of pounds being invested into the league.

Going forward, football in the UAE can really become a global product, with partnerships around the world in place. One of those is with La Liga, who have teamed up with a Dubai telecommunications company to provide school and football academies – giving players a chance to travel to Spain to play in Spanish academies.

Al Ain’s 2018 heroes, the Asian Cup, and the future of UAE football

18 December 2018, Abu Dhabi: The Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium was in ferment as UAE Pro League Champions managed a 2-2 draw with the great River Plate, before winning 5-4 on penalties, to setup a Club World Cup Final tie with the biggest club on earth: Real Madrid. Goalkeeper Khalid Eisa saved penalties from Lucas Pratto and Ezequiel Palacios to send his side to the final ahead of Buenos Aires giants River Plate.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be for Al Ain in the final, with Madrid winning 4-1, but it was a proud day for Emirati football. The win against River Plate will go down in history as one of the greatest for a UAE club.

Next on the agenda for the UAE is to host the 2019 Asian Cup. Sadly for them, star man Abdulrahman will not feature for the side, as he recovers from an ACL tear. Last time, in 2015, he inspired the team to a third place finish – so they will hugely miss his goals, 43 in 68 appearances to be exact. Aside from their star man, UAE do have some key players, such as striker Ahmed Khalil, who has netted 49 goals in 97 caps, and won the 2015 AFC Player of the year award. They also have tidy players such as Ali Mabkhout and goalkeeper Khalid Essa, who was the shootout hero for Al Ain against River Plate.

Defending champions Australia and Japan are the favourites to win, but the UAE represent tough opposition that with hosts advantage, could go all the way.

There’s a long way to go, but clearly, football in the UAE is on the rise. It started with investments following the discovery of oil, followed by innovative changes made by the likes of Don Revie, then the journey to the unknown at Italia 90, through to now: Al Ain at the Club World Cup, and the UAE hosting the Asian Cup.

Next stop: Qatar 2022?

(Or perhaps more realistically – the 48-team 2026 World Cup)

By Lewis Steele

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