The UAE was barely 20 years old - but a young team defied the odds to put their country on the map
My favourite World Cup moment: UAE glimpse the lights of Rome at Italia 90
Italy, 1990. A team that did not exist just two decades before makes its debut on the rarefied World Cup stage. The players were young, many non-professional and yet determined to put their country on the map.
On June 9, the UAE walked out at the Stadio Renato Dall'Ara in Bologna for its first game against a South American team featuring none other than Carlos Valderrama. I was nine and watching back home in Ireland. Why I was tuned in to this particular game I can’t recall but I remember wondering who this new team in white were, what their country was like and not once imagining I would one day move to the country’s capital for a job.
In the stands, supporters in national dress cheered their heroes on but could not prevent a 2-0 loss. The young Emiratis, managed by Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira, were faced with an almost impossible task in Group D. And despite a supreme effort, the UAE also went down to eventual winners West Germany 5-1 in torrential conditions at the San Siro in Milan (the first goal for the UAE was scored by Khalid Ismail) and to Yugoslavia 4-1 in the final game.
In the years after the finals, many of the players went back to their day jobs and the awesome achievement seemed to have disappeared from view, living on in the memories of those few who played, old VHS tapes and scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings. But a documentary about the UAE’s exploits called Lights of Rome began to change all that. Made by Ali Khaled, a former journalist at The National, it documented the team’s shot at international glory. Flickering archive images chart the UAE’s heartbreak after coming agonisingly close to making Mexico 1986, its heroics during the successful qualifying campaign for Italia 90, and the team’s experience at the finals. Lights of Rome underlined just how epic of an achievement it was. One that has never been repeated.
In many ways, Italia 90 represented a changing of the guard for sport and the world. It was the last time we saw West German and Soviet teams compete, the tournament has since become much more commercial and from the 24 teams that summer, now 32 compete with plans to expand this to 48.
Italia 90 also represented a coming of age for the UAE. It mirrored the experience of my home country Ireland, who also had a team at the tournament for the first time. Both countries were becoming more outward, international and making their mark on the world stage. Villages, towns and cities in Ireland ground to a halt to watch the country progress unexpectedly to the quarter finals. During those seemingly endless summer days, Luciano Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma played on repeat. And everyone’s smile was that bit brighter and people walked that little bit taller.