Ali al Wehaibi believes Al Ain can still achieve success despite their Pro League struggles this season
The good times are still ahead for Al Ain
Ali al Wehaibi has enjoyed the best of times at Al Ain. He is not ready to give up on the only club he has known as they endure some of the worst of times. The clever and compact midfielder, 27, was with Al Ain when they won three consecutive top-flight championships, in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
He was there when the club won the Asian Champions League in 2003, and when they won three President's Cups, two Super Cups and one Etisalat Cup. In 2006, he was declared the best player in the league by the Arabic-language daily newspaper Al Ittihad.
But much of that must seem a long time ago as Al Ain have fallen on hard times. A club that never have been relegated find themselves in the drop zone more than halfway through the Pro League season. On Tuesday, they were bounced out of the President's Cup for playing an ineligible player in their last-16 match.
"It is not unusual for any club to go through a bad period," al Wehaibi said. "We lost some of the key players and that was combined with some bad luck, like we lost a few games that we shouldn't have lost. And when that happens, everything the team does looks faulty. But I am sure we can come through this situation with a lot of matches left, both in the domestic and continental level."
Al Ain still have reason to strive. They are in the semi-finals of the Etisalat Cup, they have their relegation fight to sort out and they play in Indonesia on Saturday with a chance to get into the group stages of the 2011 Asian Champions League (ACL).
"There are a lot of games and competitions, and the opportunity for us to bounce back," al Wehaibi said. "The league is now beyond our reach but we will try to move up as high as possible, but we have the Etisalat Cup and the ACL to play for."
Al Wehaibi started with Al Ain at age nine, when he made the club's Under 11 side. By age 17, he was playing for the first team.
He said he has never considered playing anywhere else. "It is my 11th year in the first team now and this is where I want to be until I finish playing."
Al Wehaibi decided on his career at an early age. "I wasn't encouraged or introduced to the sport by friends or family. The desire to play was inside me. When I first started, my ambition was to play for Al Ain's first team. It was the key if I have to achieve anything beyond that. Thank God, now I have played for my country at all levels - the junior, youth, Olympic and senior national teams."
Al Wehaibi recovered from an ankle injury in time to be picked for the Gulf Cup in Yemen and his performance in that competition in November earned him a place in the Asian Cup in Qatar; he started all three games as the UAE finished at the bottom of the group.
"The results in the Asian Cup don't tell the actual story," he said. "It is true, at the end we finished at the bottom of the group with one point, but it could have been different had we won the first game with North Korea.
"We created several chances in all three games but couldn't translate them to goals."
A thoughtful veteran, al Wehaibi has some ideas of what he would do if he were chief executive of the Pro League: he would increase the number of foreign players from three per team and add two teams to the 12-team league, making for a 26-game season instead of 22. He also has thoughts on attendances. "In most established countries, the fans attend, watch and enjoy the game," he said.
"But the Emirati fans only want to know the outcome. This mentality has to change if the administrators want to fill the stadiums. To solve this problem, we have to improve the technical performance on the pitch as well as create awareness … particularly among the youth."
Al Wehaibi is a great admirer of Luis Figo, the former Portugal and Real Madrid midfielder. "Figo was my role model and I always tried to copy him," al Wehaibi said. "My favourite coach is Jose Mourinho so I am a real Real fan. And like my loyalty to Al Ain, I will remain a Real fan forever."