x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Mahdi Ali's UAE boys send the fans home happy

The Olympic team coach said that the pressure of the UAE's qualifier against Australia was overshadowed by his own anxiety of trying to please the crowd of 28,724 in the stands. Audio interview

Omar Abdulrahman celebrates his goal against Australia with his UAE Olympic teammates.
Omar Abdulrahman celebrates his goal against Australia with his UAE Olympic teammates.

The occasion of the UAE's 1-0 victory over Australia last night was so shivers-down-the-spine remarkable that Mahdi Ali, the UAE coach and a man with great powers of concentration, found himself fretting not over his team, nor the Aussies … but about the 28,724 fans in the stands.

The day before, Ali had all but called out the UAE's football supporters when he told reporters that "anyone who loves his country" would attend the match at the cavernous Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.

And then, wouldn't you know it, no fewer than 28,724 of them - the biggest crowd for a World Cup or Olympic qualifying match since 2001 - turned out for the game, a heaving, chanting, singing, flag-waving mass that seemed to materialise almost in response to Ali's demand.

He conceded it unsettled him a little, because a crowd that big for a match that important is not meant to go home disappointed. That is not how these particular lines of sports narrative work.

"My main concern during the game," Ali conceded after the match, "was the fans, because this is the first time the fans came with this quantity to the field. And my main concern during the game? I want this crowd to go home happy at the end of the game.

"And I'm very happy at the end that we were successful in this game, and we fought and worked hard as we had promised the fans. And I'm very happy that they are happy."

Oh, they were happy, all right. They cheered long after the final whistle, right through the pitch invasions by a few dozen giddy teenagers who hugged players or careered around the ground, including one who did a backflip and another who eluded police before kneeling in front of the VIP section, kissing the UAE flag and giving a military salute.

Oh, they were happy, all right. They thronged the team's buses after the match, and shouted salutations and praise at the players, who had stuck their heads out the bus windows so as to linger in the love of their supporters, and they drove through the streets around the stadium, honking horns and waving flags.

Was it the biggest victory on home soil by a UAE football team?

It certainly has to be in the running.

The top of the heap probably remains the 1-0 victory over Oman in the final of the 2007 Gulf Cup at Zayed Sports City, the one and only trophy won by the senior national team.

That tournament aside, the country's national teams have tended not to win big matches on UAE soil. About as good as it gets, in the past decade, was a 2-2 draw with Oman seen by 40,000 in 2001, a one-point result that lifted the senior team into a play-off with Iran for a World Cup berth.

 

This one did not clinch anything. The Under 23 team have one more bit of work to see to, a victory or a draw, or even a one-goal defeat, against Uzbekistan in Tashkent in three weeks, before they can book their passage to the 2012 London Olympics.

It got them awfully close, however, and one suspects it will be a match fathers and sons who were in the stands - and mothers and daughters, too - will talk about for years to come.

"And then Omar Abdulrahman, curly-haired kid who stands only about this tall, took a shot with his left foot about three yards from the end line, and it went into the goal, and the shout we let out probably could have been heard on the Corniche, if not on Yas Island."

"I know, Dad. I was there."

"Oh, yes. So you were. Wasn't it a grand time?"

So much to remember. The fans singing the national anthem a cappella 30 minutes before the match and then again in the 90th minute.

The thousands of UAE flags frantically waved for two hours.

The 80-metre strip of UAE colours that stretched nearly from goal to goal in the Muroor Road stand.

The vocal gymnastics of the stout young man known as "Falooda", the cheerleader to a nation.

And, little did any of us know, until he conceded it after the match, that Ali, coach of the hour, was hoping against hope his team could send home happy this massive conclave of UAE supporters, who love their football team almost as much as they love their country.