Fahad Ali, the former Al Ain captain, considers winning the inaugural 2003 Asian Champions League as being the icing on the cake in a three-year spell in which they also claimed three league titles and the President's Cup. "Those results just went to prove how good we were when we won the continental championship," said Ali, who led the side to a 2-1 aggregate win over BEC Thero Sasana of Thailand.
Al Ain won the league three times in a row from 2002-2004, and added the President's Cup and the ACL in what Ali described as his best three years at the club where he came through the junior ranks and played for until his retirement in 2008. Ali is one of the most decorated players in Al Ain's history, winning six league titles, four President's Cup and the ACL title. Al Ain were the beaten finalist in the 2005 tournament and were the only team to reach the knockout stage of the first four stagings of the event.
"We had some excellent Emirati players, focused and hungry to win. And they were at their peak during this period," said Ali. "The ACL was also new and wasn't the strongest. But that shouldn't take any sheen off our win as I believe we could have won against any team on the form we were at that time." In the 2002-2003 season, the Asian Football Confederation merged the three major Asian club competitions - the Asian Champions Cup, the Asian Cup Winners Cup and the Asian Super Cup - into the Champions League.
The competition was scrapped in the following year due to the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus outbreak, but was relaunched in 2004, with games played from March to November. "The ACL took off from the time it was relaunched," said Ali. "West Asian clubs were the most successful in the early years of the tournament, but the power has since shifted to the East. "It is very evident the ACL is much stronger, and it will get even stronger with time. It is a wonderful tournament and provides the local players the exposure they need at the continental level.
"It is a pity the Pro League clubs failed to go beyond the group stage in the last two years, but I believe it is only temporary. "The clubs as well as the players were distracted by the prospect of playing in the Club World Cup as the host teams last year and later this year." firstname.lastname@example.org