As the country hosts the biggest football event in its history, Abdulrahman Mohammed recalls leading his country out at the 1990 World Cup.
Day the UAE faced world's best team
Deep inside the Immigration Office at Jebel Ali Port & Free Zone, First Lieutenant Abdulrahman Mohammed is sat behind a large oak desk. He wears a military uniform and a stern frown. An intimidating figure, the stocky 46-year-old is the type of man one could easily carry the moniker of the Bull.
Mohammed was equally as intimidating 20 years ago when he bossed the midfield of the UAE national team en route to the 1990 World Cup, the Emirates' first - and as yet only - World Cup finals appearance. As captain of the side, he led them to qualifying victories over Pakistan, Kuwait and China, before facing South Korea on October 28, 1989 in a crucial showdown. It was the team's final qualifier and took place at a neutral venue, in Singapore.
"We knew all we had to do was draw," says Mohammed, whose face softens at the first mention of football, a game he played for 22 years. "But Korea scored first and that meant we really had to attack them. Thankfully Adnan [Talyani] equalised and we drew 1-1. "When the referee blew the whistle for the game to end, it was something I will never forget; something incredible. This, for me, was the best moment in the UAE's football history."
The reward was a place at Italia '90, where Carlos Alberto Parreira's men were grouped together with Colombia, Yugoslavia and eventual champions, West Germany. The UAE, fate decided, would face the likes of Carlos Valderrama, Robert Prosinecki and Jurgen Klinsmann. "For me, every team there was great," he says now, adjusting the gleaming regalia on his uniform. "We saw the draw and knew it was far too difficult to qualify for the next round. Colombia had Valderrama and [Rene] Higuita, while Yugoslavia were excellent technically. We sat down and said: 'OK, let's do our best. If we get a good result fantastic, but, if not, no big deal - after all, nobody expects us to beat Germany'."
As anticipated, the UAE lost each of their three group games. However, the Emirati says he has only fond memories of his summer spent in the Mediterranean and insists there was no sense of disappointment at the UAE training camp in Genoa. "For us, it was never about the results," says Mohammed, who turned out for Dubai's Al Nasr Club between 1975 and 1997. "Just to play at the World Cup was a dream come true. Playing against the likes of Klinsmann, Rudi Voller, Lothar Matthaus and Andreas Brehme was truly something special. Growing up, I used to watch World Cups and when you watch it you want to be there, but when you are there, it is another feeling altogether. It was unbelievable.
"We made an entire nation happy. I spoke to my friends back home after each game; they had watched on TV and they all said the same thing: 'Well done'. Nobody was angry that we lost, everybody was simply proud of what we had achieved." Mohammed started his career as a goalkeeper for Nasr, but later decided to play as a striker after realising diving on the hard volleyball court on which the team trained was not quite as enjoyable as scoring goals.
It was as a forward that he represented the Blue Wave until 1990 when Parreira, who had replaced Brazilian compatriot Mario Zagallo in the run up to the World Cup, asked if he would be willing to play in midfield instead. "Parreira said we had many good players in attack, but we needed someone with a football brain to play in the middle," explains Mohammed. "He spoke to the Al Nasr manager and the two agreed that I would play in midfield. In reflection, I think I must be one of the first players in the UAE to play a competitive game in every position."
It was the Brazilian tactician's decision to have Mohammed drop deep that resulted in the Emirati coming up against Matthaus on a balmy June night at the San Siro. "Our plan was to attack them," he says of the match against Franz Beckenbauer's soon-to-be crowned world champions. "Until the 35th minute it was a draw and even at half-time we were only losing 2-0 [Voller and Klinsmann scoring the goals]. In the second half we gave them a scare when Khalid Ismail scored to make it 2-1, but then, well, we know what happened."
A minute later Matthaus lost his marker on the edge of the area to drive home a crisp left-footed volley from a Brehme cross and the Germans went on to win 5-1, the other goals coming courtesy of Uwe Bein and Voller. Mohammed appreciated that in Matthaus he was unlikely to face a better player and the two midfielders swapped shirts on the final whistle. The German's famous No 10 jersey still hangs framed in Mohammed's house and when the Emirati captain announced his retirement after 22 years of service for Nasr, Matthaus promised to take the five-hour flight to the Emirates to play in his friend's testimonial.
The match took place on March 8, 2001 and one of the world's finest midfielders donned the kit of the Blue Wave. "We played against Iranian side Esteghlal and Lothar Matthaus came to my house for dinner," Mohammed recalls. "We won 4-2, he wore the Al Nasr kit and later he even dressed up in the dishdashah. It was a great day for me; I have photos and still today we keep in contact." As he speaks, a young western male awaiting his visa at a nearby desk looks over, hoping to catch a glimpse of a former superstar. When his face is greeted by the granite mask of Mohammed he looks away again, disappointed.
"Only at the World Cup did I feel like I was really a footballer," he says, ruefully. "In the UAE at that time there were no professional players and we all worked and played football. But in Italy, it was crazy. When we went out, I looked around and all these people were in awe, talking about us. I thought to myself: 'Now, I am a footballer'." And so he was. One of the best the UAE have produced. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org