x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Emotions running high for Arabian Gulf League champions Al Ahli with domestic treble on the cards

Fan favourite Grafite says he has one or two years of high-level football left in him and wants to play them in the UAE

Abdulla Qasem, left, of Al Jazira holds off Grafite of Al Ahli during the Arabian Gulf Cup final at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain on April 19, 2014. Courtesy Al Ittihad
Abdulla Qasem, left, of Al Jazira holds off Grafite of Al Ahli during the Arabian Gulf Cup final at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain on April 19, 2014. Courtesy Al Ittihad

Grafite has scored plenty of goals for Al Ahli since his arrival from the German club Wolfsburg in 2011 – 58 of them in the league alone – but rarely has he been as emotional as he was on Saturday night, in the final of the Arabian Gulf Cup, after heading in the equaliser.

Swarmed by teammates as they celebrated the 69th-minute goal, Grafite gave way to his emotions. His eyes welled up and a few tears trickled down his cheeks.

Big guys do cry and Grafite had good reason, for that goal gave new life to their historic bid for a domestic treble.

“It is not every day that you play a final and score a goal which levels the scores and brings your team back into the game,” he said, explaining his reaction. “The goal came in the 69th minute and if we had not scored around that time, it would have been really hard for us.

“But the moment I scored, I knew we were going to win the match because the team was back playing at the level we have been playing this season.

“So it was a very important goal because it brought us back into the game and helped us win the match.”

Twelve minutes after Grafite’s equaliser, Ismail Al Hammadi made a magical run into the box, tricking his way around three Al Jazira players before finishing off with a stinging, low shot. That goal brought back memories of his stunning 107th-minute winner against Iraq in the final of the Gulf Cup of Nations last year.

This time, there were no tears, just wild celebrations as Grafite and all the other men in red raced towards the twinkle-toed Ahli winger.

“I am really proud to win this title,” Grafite said. “It has been such a great season for us and I believe we deserved to win. But it is not finished yet. We have two more targets to achieve: make the second round of the Champions League and then try and win the President’s Cup.”

Ahli’s Asian Champions League fate will become clear on Tuesday, when they meet Al Sadd in Qatar. A draw would see Ahli reach the last 16 in Asia. For the prestigious President’s Cup, they will have to wait until May 18 when they meet arch-foes Al Ain, a team Ahli have beaten three times already this season: first in the season-opening Super Cup, then twice in the Arabian Gulf League.

“We will try to take this final as well,” said Luis Jimenez, Ahli’s Chilean-Palestinian playmaker. “We have won three matches against Al Ain this season, so I hope we can also win the last match.”

Once they finish with the President’s Cup, Grafite will meet the Ahli management to talk about his future. A crowd favourite whose name is often chanted by the fans, the 35-year-old Brazilian is hoping to continue his three-year association with the team.

“I love the guys here and I love the club,” he said. “I am very happy here. I know the league, I know the players and I don’t want to change now because it will not be so easy.

“So let’s see what happens when we sit down to discuss a new contract, but I think I will still be here next season.”

There have been reports claiming Ahli will try to accommodate Grafite in their coaching set-up once his playing days are over, as the club did for Italy’s World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro. The striker, however, says he has not thought about retirement.

“I don’t think I am ready for coaching yet,” Grafite said. “I believe I can play at a high level for one or two years more. After that, I will think what I want to do.

“I am sure I will be working inside football, but I don’t know about coaching. I think I don’t have the characteristics you need for coaching because it is not so easy, but I don’t know. Anything can happen.”

arizvi@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter at @SprtNationalUAE