x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Football provides perfect escape

Haider Ali is back marshalling the Al Wahda defence a month after tragically losing his baby son to illness.

Haider Ali, the Al Wahda captain, still mourning for the death of his 18-month-old son, wants to be in the team on merit, not sympathy. Courtesy Al Ittihad newspaper
Haider Ali, the Al Wahda captain, still mourning for the death of his 18-month-old son, wants to be in the team on merit, not sympathy. Courtesy Al Ittihad newspaper

 Haider Ali's world was shattered. His only child, 18-month-old son, Hamad, succumbed to a brief illness late last month, leaving the Al Wahda captain heartbroken and in deep shock. 

He missed his club's Pro League matches against Kalba and Al Jazira, but was back for the Al Ain match last weekend.

Ali looked different, too. The curly locks Wahda fans knew him for had been shorn, replaced by a new beard. The change is understandable for one still in deep mourning. 

"It is really hard for me to get over the loss," Ali said. "Life has taken a different turn for me and I am still not sure how it is going to be in the future. I am trying to move on with my football." 

Ali preferred not to expand on the death of his son. But he is more than willing to continue in his leadership role with his club.

"Football is something that I have enjoyed playing all my life and I still want to contribute for the team, although it brings me some solace to temporarily focus my mind elsewhere. 

"My teammates and the club management have rallied around me to give me comfort. But I want to be in the team on merit, not for sympathy. I have worked hard and will keep working harder for the team that has given me so much in my life."

Ali led Wahda to the league title last season, which ensured a place for the Abu Dhabi side as the "home" team in the Fifa Club World Cup when it is staged in the capital from December 8 through 18. 

During happier times, Ali spoke of his football career and his days growing up. He related how he got his favourite shirt number. Good-luck charms are to sportsmen like Christmas lights are to suburban houses. Although not necessary, they make their owners feel better about themselves.

Ali's shirt number, 23, was inspired by his childhood basketball idol, Michael Jordan. He considers it a rare piece of luck that the coveted number was available upon promotion to the first team in 1996. 

Incidentally, he was born on Christmas day and fancied the shirt No 25, as well. "I had a choice for my club shirt number as they remained unclaimed at the time, but I went for my childhood hero Michael Jordan's iconic 23," said Ali, who played both basketball and football during his days at school.

He has won four league titles, a President's Cup and Super Cup medals, and has amassed 91 international caps for his country after being called in to the national team for the first time in 2001. 

He believes a few more trophies will come his way. Ali graduated from the Wahda academy, along with the club stalwarts Abdulraheem Jumaa, Basheer Saeed and Fahed Masoud. 

"When I was young I was like everyone else. I was fortunate because my father was a professional player and took up coaching when he finished playing. He helped me along in those formative years. He joined Wahda as a junior coach and he took me along with him to the Wahda academy. We were fortunate to have met the club chairman Sheikh Saeed [bin Zayed] and he has helped us all the way through from then up to now."

As a budding young footballer he discovered a local hero in the former UAE international forward Zuhair Bakhit. And why not? Given that the Al Wasl player proved himself as one of the best strikers the country has produced, who played in the 1990 World Cup in Italy and went on to play in three Asian Championships and five Gulf Cups. 

"Zuhair was my first football hero and he was my role model. Later I turned to the Brazilian Ronaldo. My favourite teams are Barcelona in Spain, Inter Milan in Italy and Arsenal in the [English] Premier League.

"It was normal as youngsters we looked up to the great players as the role models. I wanted to play as a forward and score goals, but I had to settle down to play a role in the midfield when I made it into the youth team. And here I am, happy to carry on with my role as a defender for my club and the national team." 

Winning the Gulf Cup for the first time, when the UAE hosted the biennial championship in 2007 remains the high point in Ali's playing career.

"There are a few other memories to relish, like winning the first league title and the President's Cup for Al Wahda, but the Gulf Cup tops them all. I hope there will be better moments to come." 

Ali took over the captain's armband from his long-time teammate Jumaa. "Of course it is an honour when the club appoints you as the captain but the responsibilities I believe are equally shared by the entire team. The team comes first for all of us at Wahda and together I feel we can achieve more."