As World Cup debuts go, this was the stuff of nightmares.
Except, in hindsight, the group of Emirati players who had already pulled off a footballing miracle by qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, would not have had it any other way.
When, in October 1989, the UAE squad headed to Singapore for the final AFC World Cup qualifying round, it is safe to say that legendary Brazilian coach Mario Zagallo’s men were the least favored of the six teams left in contention.
South Korea, Saudi Arabia, China, Qatar and North Korea were all, in one way or another, expected to fare better the UAE.
Some of the UAE players would years later admit that they were simply making up the numbers. Adnan Hamad, the Emirati commentator who would go down in history as the narrator of their historic moment, even went as far as to say that team was simply honoring a contractual obligation, so as not to be sanctioned by FIFA.
Miraculously, however, a group of players all born before the UAE became a unified nation in 1972, managed to turn the tables on their more fancied opponents. It was not spectacular. Apart from a remarkable late win in a rainstorm against China, when two goals in the dying minutes overturned a one-goal deficit, the UAE drew their other four matches.
With results elsewhere going their way, that would prove enough for them to qualify for their first ever World Cup, alongside favorites South Korea who they played in their last match. The celebrations in the rain and mud at Jurong Stadium, Singapore at the final whistle remain Emirati football’s most joyous moment.
“I can see the lights of Rome from here,” wept an emotional Hamad on Abu Dhabi Television’s broadcast.
For many of the players, it was sweet redemption having fallen heartbreakingly short four years earlier when an injury time goal by Iraq saw them miss out on qualification to Mexico 86 on away goals.
After their heroics in Singapore the players were received back home as all-conquering heroes. Whatever was going to follow was always going to be embraced as a beautiful adventure.
When the squad landed in Italy, they were greeted with a mixture of appreciation and mystery. The UAE had been a country for only 18 years, and in the documentary Anwar Roma (“Lights of Rome”), members of the squad endearingly recalled a level of attention they were rarely accustomed to, with one of them even being asked to point out the country’s location on a map.
By this time, Zagallo had been replaced by his predecessor Carlos Alberto Parreira, who in 1985 resided over that loss to Iraq and who had taken Kuwait to the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
Not surprisingly, very little was expected from the UAE. Damage limitation was the order of the day, and the players knew that a chance of an upset in this unforgiving company was highly unlikely.
Yet when on June 9, 1990 they made their World Cup debut against Colombia in Bologna, the Emiratis started off like a team with nothing to lose. On a sunny day at Stadio Renato Dall’Ara, they could have even taken a first half lead through Adnan Al Talyani, widely considered the UAE’s greatest ever footballer, and managed to reach half-time on level terms.
But after the break their defense was finally breached when Bernardo Redín headed past Muhsin Musabah from close range. Still the Emiratis kept their composure and refused to buckle as was widely expected. Their resistance was finally broken for good when the brilliant Carlos Valderrama, “South American Footballer of the Year” in 1987, scored a fine solo goal with five minutes left.
The UAE players were cheered off the pitch by an appreciative 30,000 crowd, knowing they had done their country proud.
But if that was a tough introduction to World Cup football, the next match against West Germany would prove to be an ordeal in every way possible.
Franz Beckenbauer’s team had destroyed a strong Yugoslavia team in their opening group match, the 4-1 easily win one of the highlights of a tournament often lacking in excitement. The Emiratis were about to walk into a storm in more ways than one.
Minutes before the kick off, an almighty thunderstorm descended on the San Siro in Milan. The rain may have been a good omen in Singapore but here it was no friend to the Emiratis. The Germans, on the other hand, had a name for such conditions; Fritz Walter Wetter (“Fritz Walter Weather”), in honor of the man who led them to their first World Cup triumph in 1954 and who particularly excelled in inclement conditions.
The UAE players stood dumfounded as their German counterparts sprinted back to the dressing room. “Are they afraid?” one Emirati player joked. But their opponents were simply changing into their more weather-appropriate boots, as they, not expecting rain in the middle of the Italian summer, were stuck with their moulded footwear. It was going to be a long night for the UAE.
And for what seemed like an eternity, the UAE defended heroically against a quite formidable German onslaught, goalkeeper Musabah managing to keep the ball out of his net with mixture of brilliance and pure luck.
When on 35 minutes Rudi Völler broke the deadlock by slipping in Jurgen Klinsmann’s low cross, Emirati fans and players feared the worst. And things got worse only two minutes later when Klinsmann headed Stefan Reuter’s cross for a quick-fire second. Getting to half time with no further concession was an achievement in itself.
What no one expected was that the start of the second half would produce one of the most cherished moments in the history of UAE football.
Straight from the restart, a long clearance caught out the normally dependable Guido Buchwald, and Khalid Ismail buried a fine left-footed volley past Bodo Illgner. The first ever UAE World Cup goal had been scored against mighty West Germany, who would go on to win the competition for third time a few weeks later.
For a few seconds, the Emirati players could bask in a historic moment. But a few moments is all it was, as German captain Lothar Matthaus restored the two-goal lead only a minute later. A well and truly exhausted, but valiant, Emirati team would concede two more through Uwe Bein and Völler to lose 5-1. It was, in the circumstances, far from a disgrace.
“The UAE should be proud of how they played,” Matthaus would say years later in Anwar Roma.
All that was left for Parreira and his men was the final group match against a gifted Yugoslavia team that still needed points to ensure progress to the round of 16.
When the UAE found themselves two goals down within nine minutes thanks to strikes by Safet Sušić and Darko Pančev, it looked like their World Cup would end on an undeservedly grim note.
However, on 22 minutes they managed to conjure up an excellent headed goal by Ali Thani and to once more give their few fans at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara something to cheer. Further goals by Pančev at the start of the second half and, in stoppage time, substitute Robert Prosinečki, meant another heavy defeat for an Emirati team that had given their all but come up short.
Three matches, three losses, 11 goals conceded, two scored and no points. Group D had proven to be as deathly as expected for the UAE.
But the players would in time acknowledge the honor of rubbing shoulders with such exceptional opponents. And the last word goes to Parreira.
“In those days, when a team from the Middle East qualified to the World Cup, they have already won the World Cup,” he said in 2015.
The UAE has since contested an AFC Asian Cup final, two semi-finals, played in the 2012 London Olympics and won the Gulf Cup twice. And yet the 1990 World Cup odyssey stands on its own as their finest ever football achievement.
And Al Talyani, Musabah, Ismail, Thani and the rest, who overcame the odds in Singapore to earn their day among the world’s best, will forever be remembered as the UAE’s Golden Generation of footballers.
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