Al Ain's Fifa Club World Cup success can be inspiration for UAE at Asian Cup
The Arabian Gulf League side's ability to not only embrace expectation, but to revel in it, in front of their home supporters will be something the national side must look to copy in January
The disappointment was etched across Marcus Berg’s face. Tellingly, it spoke to how far Al Ain had come across 10 dizzying days in December.
The UAE champions had been beaten by Real Madrid, convincingly but not crushingly, losing the Fifa Club World Cup final to the now three-time successive champions, winners of four of the past five Uefa Champions League crowns.
In Abu Dhabi, reigning Ballon d’Or Luka Modric and World Cup winner Sergio Ramos were among the scorers.
That Al Ain made it there, in front of nearly 41,700 fans at Zayed Sports City Stadium and everyone else watching on, represented a significant feat in itself. They had created history already, no matter the 4-1 defeat, no matter that their four games in a week and a half had sapped the soul, that those exertions ensured Saturday’s headline test was one challenge too steep to scale.
Yet the UAE’s most decorated club had become the first UAE team to contest the showpiece. Along the way, they defeated the champions from Oceania, Africa and, in what can lay claim to being Al Ain’s greatest victory in their 50-year history, the champions of South America. This month's Copa Libertadores winners.
Pausing for thought after Madrid, Berg first lamented Al Ain’s inability to conjure one final grand push. Then he laid out for positives. He spoke of a dream almost realised, of the pride his side had engendered in getting to that point. “The whole of the UAE has supported us,” Berg offered.
And that is exactly what it had felt. In rebounding to scrape past Team Wellington in the opening play-off, in blasting through Esperance de Tunis in the quarter-final, and in going toe-to-toe with River Plate in the last four - puffing out their chests and surrendering them on penalties - Al Ain carried not only their fans’ hopes of pulling off the seemingly impossible, but the country’s as well.
Their Hazza bin Zayed Stadium thrummed for all of the quarter-finals and the semi.
On Saturday, Zayed Sports City heaved and hummed, first to River’s hardy supporters as the Argentines sealed bronze, then to the optimistic majority, dressed in kandoras, Al Ain purple, or even mocked up as Batman’s Joker, wishing to bear witness to the ultimate upset. Only that, as potency and promise drained, Al Ain sleeves contained no ace.
Irrespective of that, the effects of their implausible course to the final should reach far outside the Garden City. Once the dust has settled, captain Ismail Ahmed will lead a sizeable group from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, where the national team are preparing for next month’s Asian Cup, on home soil. The UAE's opener, against Bahrain, is less than two weeks away.
Of course, Ahmed and teammates will surely feel fatigued, both physically and mentally, but they can also arrive at camp buoyed by what they have just achieved. Burdened by heavy pressure, they mastered it and marched forward.
They embraced expectation. They proved what could be done if all the stars align, if bolstered by the public’s backing, if lifted to previously unparalleled levels. If allowed to, as Al Ain manager Zoran Mamic regularly reminded throughout the past 10 days, enjoy a genuinely momentous occasion. Above all, to believe.
His UAE counterpart, Alberto Zaccheroni, had originally bemoaned Al Ain’s Club World Cup commitments, yet he can be grateful that their national team contingent lands in front of him with confidence peaked.
Those above him in UAE football, and beyond, can be grateful too. The past week and a half has displayed just how a team and a tournament can be elevated by a fervent support, by people packing a stadium to make it feel like there’s nowhere else anyone should be.
The Asian Football Confederation, presiding over its premier event, will hope for more of the same.
As will Al Ain’s national team players. Yes, in the immediate aftermath on Saturday the disappointment was raw. But what a ride it had been. For a while, their daring and their doggedness allowed them to dream.
With Asian Cup just about upon us, there’s no reason why they cannot transmit that to another similarly starry campaign.
Updated: December 23, 2018 01:59 PM