x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Documentary on UAE’s World Cup adventure will shed light on underappreciated time

Twenty-five years after qualifying to the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the UAE’s Golden Generation are once again ready to face the cameras.

The UAE national team facing West Germany on June 15, 1990, in Milan during the 1990 Fifa World Cup. To mark the 25th anniversary of the UAE qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, Image Nation is producing a documentary to remind fans of the national team's achievements. Photo courtesy Al Ittihad
The UAE national team facing West Germany on June 15, 1990, in Milan during the 1990 Fifa World Cup. To mark the 25th anniversary of the UAE qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, Image Nation is producing a documentary to remind fans of the national team's achievements. Photo courtesy Al Ittihad

Exactly four years ago, on the eve of the World Cup in South Africa, I sat down to write a story on the 20th anniversary of the UAE’s finest sporting moment – qualification for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

Except that nearly everywhere I looked, information was scarce.

Players could not be reached. Google turned up a handful of search results, and even those were recent ones, by a colleague. Not much seemed to have survived.

Players could not be reached. Google turned up barely a handful of search results. Wikipedia had nothing beyond statistics that could not begin to scratch the surface of the story.

The UAE’s finest sporting moment had become a forgotten story.

Do Emiratis, and expatriates, not still remember that astonishing 2-1 win against China? The heroics of Adnan Al Talyani, Fahd Khamis and Mohsin Musabah in that October 1989 qualifying campaign in Singapore? Or the TV analyst Adnan Hamad’s stirring, tearful commentary on reaching Italy, on seeing those “Roman lights”, as he memorably put it?

Digging beneath the surface revealed a genuine, but latent, warmth for the UAE’s golden generation of footballers. The people just needed to be reminded.

And so began the first steps toward a documentary on the UAE’s journey to its only World Cup finals, Italia ‘90.

It is a testament to the enduring power of the underdog story that two people who instantly saw the story’s potential are not of these shores. Matt Slater, the former sports editor at The National, was one of them. During the next year or so, our casual conversations about 1989 turned to serious plans about developing a story. Slater, now director at Seven Media, knew the person to approach: Danielle Perrisi at Image Nation in Abu Dhabi.

The film production company was already involved in several projects that highlighted Emirati achievements and initiatives, both at home and internationally. Beyond Borders, My Military/My Life and Chance of a Lifetime, to name a few.

Few production companies had the resources and know-how to resurrect this Emirati exploit like Image Nation.

“A huge factor in deciding to make this documentary is our ability to tell properly the most important events in UAE sports history,” said Mohammed Al Mubarak, chairman at Image Nation, who gave the project a green light in 2013.

The nation’s sports history runs parallel to its development, as far back as the creation of the union in 1971. The two threads will intertwine to tell the tale in the film, with the UAE’s qualification against massive odds serving as a metaphor for the country’s socio-economic and political development during the previous decade.

In 1979, the UAE national team was routinely losing 7-0 and 5-0 to Kuwait and Iraq, the two Gulf football powers at the time. Ten years later, a famous 2-1 win against the world’s most-populous nation, China, set the UAE on the way to becoming one of the smallest nations to reach the World Cup.

To put this sporting miracle in context, it was achieved by a group of players born before the UAE was a nation. It was time to find these players, a group of humble men who returned to day jobs once their careers were over.

It was a tough task, but one that Image Nation’s Humaid Al Suwaidi worked diligently to overcome. One by one, the players emerged, some eager, others reluctant. All with a trove of stories to tell, and not just about football, either.

By early 2014, Stevan Riley, director of the award-winning documentary Fire in Babylon, joined the project as creative producer. Several months later, Image Nation reiterated its commitment to promoting UAE-based talent by hiring director Nizar Sfair and producer Omar Sami, completing what Mubarak called “a world-class team”.

Still, there was little information from which to work. Almost no match reports and front-page headlines from that era have been digitised. Digging up the past was going to be an appropriately analog effort.

“Old archives, especially photos, are so often filed inaccurately, and in some cases, randomly,” said Ismail Dawwas of Venn Communication, the company tasked with researching the project. “In one specific case, I was told that there is no point in searching the library of a newspaper.”

But apathy soon turned to interest, and then excitement, once the nature of the project became clear. Old VHS tapes were suddenly found, photographic sheets became available, and newspaper match reports were reproduced.

Image Nation announced the film’s production on Monday, June 9 – the exact date, 24 years earlier, that the UAE played their first World Cup match, against Colombia in Bologna.

Now, 25 years on from their heroics in Singapore, UAE football’s first golden generation is again ready to face the cameras.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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