Exclusive: Marcus Berg on a tough season ahead at Al Ain, playing at the World Cup and life without Omar Abdulrahman
The National's John McAuley spoke to the Sweden striker ahead of what promises to be a tough season for the league-and-cup winners
By his own admission, Marcus Berg is a little introverted.
Down to earth and softly spoken, his is a quiet authority, although he prefers to let his football do the talking.
Prolific at Panathinaikos, Berg joined Al Ain at the beginning of last season and continued to prosper, scoring at a rate of a goal per game to shoot his club to both the Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup titles. He netted the top flight’s Golden Boot. He even topped its assist charts.
For the first time in their 50-year history, Al Ain won the country’s two most coveted crowns in the same season. With Berg the spearhead to their success, they had, finally, a striker capable of adequately replacing Asamoah Gyan.
A new season, though, brings fresh challenges. A master marksman will be a marked man. But, true to character, Berg doesn’t seem particularly concerned.
“For me, it’s just to continue the same way,” he tells The National, relaxing into his seat at Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium. “I don’t have any secrets. I know my style of football and sometimes it’s pretty simple. I like to be in the box where it happens, to score goals or give assists. That’s my quality and what I’m trying to help the team with also this year.
“But talking about goals and scoring and assists, you can never predict anything. I will just do my best to work hard and hopefully that helps the team to win the games. That’s the only thing I’m focused on.
“I’m 32 this year so I’m experienced, I know how it is: sometimes you do very easy things and sometimes you can do crazy things that you don’t understand. It’s just to be focused on the hard work. For me, that’s always the No 1 thing.”
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Being No 1 extends to the collective. Keeping Al Ain there, as the country’s foremost club, is what has driven Berg through the rigours of pre-season – “I never like that, I prefer games” – not to mention the recognition that repeating last season’s boon will be even more difficult a second time around.
“What I learn and how I see it, always when you play for Al Ain all the teams want to beat you because we are the biggest team,” says Berg, who opened his account for the campaign in last week’s season opening win against Emirates. “So all the games are difficult because they always put in something extra to beat us, so they can say they beat Al Ain.
“But especially now after the double it will be harder and we have to step it up from last year, to not have so many downs. With the quality and the mindset we have that we want to repeat last season and we want to do it even better, I’m not worried that we’re not ready.”
As has been well documented, Al Ain will have to do it without their prized asset. Omar Abdulrahman departed this summer, eschewing a contract offer from the club he captained to instead sign for Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal on a free transfer. Not only a leader, but the supplier of chances for Berg, the playmaker will be missed.
“We have to be honest, he’s a fantastic player, a fantastic person,” Berg says. “So of course he’s a guy that will be missed in the team. But we have to live without him, to try to do our best. I’m sure and I believe really that we can do great things with our team, with all respect to Omar - I really adore him as a player and as a person.
"But that’s part of life and football: that you have to look forward. You cannot look back. We have to do our best and I believe that we can do great things also without him.”
While Abdulrahman’s absence will be felt, others have to now step into the breach. As one of the squad’s most experienced members, and having settled following a fantastic debut season – he struck 36 times in 36 appearances - Berg feels more comfortable in taking a weightier role in the changing room. Even if that goes somewhat against his personality.
“I don’t think my role’s changed that much,” he says. “Of course, when you come as a new player you have to find your way. You have to start to know the players, and that takes time. Especially for me, I’m a little bit introverted; I’m not that open.
“But the more time goes, I start to know people and they start to know me, I take more responsibility. This year I have to take a step forward to try to show I’m one of the more experienced players. And also we lost Omar. We have spaces to fill in the team, but we have a lot of good, experienced players who I believe will take a step forward.”
That applies on the pitch as well. Berg does not like to set targets, or at least publicise them, but he maintains the priority is to retain Al Ain’s status as the UAE’s strongest club. An improvement in the Asian Champions League figures highly, too.
This year, Al Ain were beaten by Al Duhail in the last 16, stretching their wait for a second continental crown to 15 years. In 2016, they made it to the final, but they have found it hard going since.
Finding that extra ingredient to go further will not be easy.
“It’s difficult to say,” Berg says. “The last part of last season was very hard for us. We had a lot of important games. The mental part, also the physical part, but the mental part, to start over after every game. We had finals, semi-finals, important games in the league, important games in the Champions League, so it was hard.
"We had a lot of pressure on us, but we made the best of it. This year will probably be the same, so it’s just to learn from that. Try to stay focused during the whole season. We lost against a good team in the Champions league, but of course we want to go further.
“It’s important for the club, it’s important for the UAE to have teams who make it to the finals or the final rounds. I see us as a team who can do that. It’s a big goal for us but, like I said, it’s also very hard.”
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Between then and now, a debut for player and club at the Fifa Club World Cup, staged in the UAE for the second successive year and once again featuring Real Madrid.
Berg watched Al Jazira’s remarkable run to the semi-finals last year, where they shocked Zinedine Zidane’s side by taking the lead before losing 2-1. For now, though, his mind is on more pressing matters.
“That’s later in the season,” he says. “That’s in December.”
That said, he enjoys the grand stage. None comes bigger than the Fifa World Cup, with Berg part of the Sweden team this summer who topped a group containing world champions Germany and went on to reach the quarter-finals against England.
He did not score in Russia, but it remains a professional highlight.
“What can I say?” Berg smiles. “I still haven’t analysed it and went through it in my head. But it was really an incredible experience. No one expected us to do that well, so it’s a very proud moment in my career.
“But when you go to the quarter-final you always want more. Even if I believe we gave our best, you always want more. It’s of the greatest experiences in my career.”
At Sweden’s opening Group F match against South Korea, Berg’s wife Josefine posted a video of their oldest son Leonel, four at the time, reduced to tears in the stands in Nizhny Novgorod as dad walked out onto the pitch below. It quickly went viral.
“My wife was filming and had Leonel next to her, he starts to get emotional and she also was emotional, she was crying,” Berg says. “You could see it was not tears of sadness, it was really that he got emotional to see us enter the pitch. It was a huge moment and nice to see after. A memory for life.”
Family Berg has been creating plenty of those in the UAE. Professional commitments and the kids’ schooling limits time together, much to Berg’s regret, but they make the most of what they do have together.
The kids’ Arabic is coming along nicely, Berg’s not so much – “I’m having some difficulties” – and it is clear their contentment is what concerns Berg most. The ink on his left arm underlines the importance of family: the angels symbolise Leonel, younger brother Mateo and older sister Jolie; the clock records the date and time he married Josefine in 2014. The title of their wedding song, John Legend’s All Of Me, is inscribed below.
“I think I’m finished,” Berg says of the tattoos. “But you never know.”
Certainly, he is not finished with Al Ain. Midway through his two-year contract and with much left to achieve, he eyes another season of success. He may be a little introverted, by his own admission, but the fire burns obviously bright.
“I will always be myself and do my thing,” Berg says. “Because if I do my best and do my thing, I think I help the team the best like that.”
Updated: September 6, 2018 11:43 AM