Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

UAE Golden Boy Ali Saleh on his Scottish roots and aspirations with club and country

Al Wasl forward, 19, was voted the UAE's best young player and recently received his first call up for the national side. He tells John McAuley about his Dubai upbringing, his aspirations, and why he's a secret Celtic fan

On the surface, Ali Saleh seems your typical Dubai-based teenager.

Aged 19, he has just put the finishing touches on his finals at American University, where he studies International Relations.

In his downtime, he enjoys playing video games or having fun with his family – mum, dad, three younger siblings, pug Zeus – and his friends, be it at home or at the beach.

He is into basketball, especially the LA Lakers and LeBron James. Like many of his peers, he chronicles his life on social media.

Predictably, Saleh’s into fashion too, a self-confessed “sneaker head” who meets on a mild Dubai afternoon kitted out in Nike’s latest collection.

So it’s rather handy, then, that Saleh recently signed a three-year contract with the American multinational. Nike boasts in its stable some of the world’s most famous athletes, LeBron included. Saleh, the fast-rising star of UAE football, is becoming pretty recognisable himself.

“Working with Nike was something I have dreamt of since a kid,” the Al Wasl forward says, sitting in the stands at Zabeel Stadium. “That’s how you know that you’ve made it or you’re working towards that. So it’s a really big step in my career.”

There have been plenty of those of late. Last month, Salah was named the 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League’s Golden Boy, the award for the best young player in the division that season.

He made his Wasl debut in 2016, the day after his 16th birthday, to become the youngest player to feature in the UAE top flight, but graduated last year to a first-team regular. From late December, he struck seven goals, his form earning recently a first call-up to the UAE senior side. Which Saleh discovered in typically teenage fashion.

“I was asleep when my dad sent me a message,” he says, laughing. “I saw it when I woke up, was half asleep when I looked at my phone. Dad was pretty happy about that. Me too. A nice ‘good morning’ text.”

Not that Saleh didn’t appreciate the significance.

“It’s always been a dream to play with the national team, to represent my country,” he says. “I’ve played for the youth national teams since I was 12, so it’s a really big honour to finally be with the first team. It’s just incredible.”

Saleh’s inclusion in the squad for next month’s camp in Austria is credible. The Golden Boy felt just reward for his performances last season, highlighted by standout strikes against Al Ahli Jeddah in the Arab Club Champions Cup and the opener in the league in May against Sharjah, the soon-to-be UAE champions.

“Very overwhelming. Just to be nominated was an honour,” Saleh says. “It’s obviously a great achievement in my career. It’s motivated me both for club and now I’ve been selected for the national team.

“I’ve had a lot of help, from everyone at the club; there’s no way I could do this alone. I have to thank my coaches since I was six years old, all the teammates I played with, everyone that’s had an influence on my career.”

Still, it took a while to sink in.

“I do feel like I’ve finally wrapped my head around it,” Saleh says. “It’s amazing to see all the people coming together to congratulate me. I’ve got a lot of messages from fans, family, teammates. It just means a lot that everyone’s showing their support. But especially my family. Because they’ve been my motivation really.”

He credits his father, Saleh, in particular for his rise through UAE football. Described as his “No 1 fan”, Saleh encouraged Ali to join Wasl aged six, taking him to training every day, forever pushing him to be better. In the difficult moments, whenever Ali was struggling for game-time in Wasl’s under-age sides, dad urged him to stay patient.

His mother has been a driving force, too, but as a teacher in Dubai, she has always preached the importance of a strong education. Patently, it has paid off: Saleh is an engaging and articulate young man, his worldview shaped by his bi-cultural background.

Mum comes from Edinburgh, so Saleh would summer in Scotland, trying to brave the cold, stretching his embrace of the local cuisine primarily to fish and chips – “I’m not going to be trying haggis anytime soon” – and perfecting his English. It’s a big part of who he is today.

“I’m very happy to be half Scottish, because I can speak English pretty well,” he says. “I’ve always loved spending time with my Scottish side of the family. That’s a big deal because they’re very supportive as well. Having a Scottish mum has taught me so much; it’s allowed me to have so much more respect for every single person in this world.”

Al Wasl midfielder Ali Saleh struck seven goals from December 2018 to help earn him the 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League’s Golden Boy as well as a national team call-up for the UAE. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Al Wasl midfielder Ali Saleh struck seven goals from December 2018 to help earn him the 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League’s Golden Boy award. Chris Whiteoak / The National

His Scottish grandparents keep abreast of Saleh’s development through a dedicated WhatsApp group, while his grandfather attends Wasl matches whenever in Dubai, something Saleh doesn’t take for granted.

Although, with Granddad a Hibernian fan, and mum supporting fierce rivals Hearts, Edinburgh-derby weekends can get a little interesting.

“I’m more of a Celtic guy,” Saleh says, although not too diplomatically. “They’re going to hate me for this.”

They would certainly love his drive. A lifelong Manchester United fan, Saleh won the opportunity in 2012 to have a week’s training camp at the English club, when he grabbed a quick picture with Alex Ferguson as the Scot was about to climb into his car.

Saleh has taken in matches at Old Trafford, and says it would be a dream to one day play on the same pitch where he once marvelled at Cristiano Ronaldo. He tries to take tips from every player he watches, in fact, implementing them in training or even matches.

“I like Neymar’s skills, his technique; Ronaldo’s power and scoring ability,” Saleh says. “And [Lionel] Messi’s mind: just the way he plays, the way he thinks about the game. It’s all very inspiring.

“I have a lot of aspirations when it comes to football: I want to better my skills, improve always, win championships, whether it’s with club or my country.

“Every day, no matter how great a player you are or you become, you always have something you can improve. So, for me right now, it’s just about setting goals and improving day by day, whether in training or as a person in general.”

Ali Saleh, who joined Al Wasl aged six, says it's always been a dream of his to play with the UAE national team. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Ali Saleh, who joined Al Wasl aged six, says it's always been a dream of his to play with the UAE national team. Chris Whiteoak / The National

There lies understandable appeal in treading a previously uncharted trail for an Emirati footballer.

“Obviously, Europe is the dream,” Saleh says. “To play in Europe, at one of the big leagues is something out of this world. It’s always been a dream of mine to play nationally and worldwide.”

Some goals are long-term, evidently, others more sooner attainable. Chief among those is helping Wasl recover from a poor season, where they finished ninth in the Arabian Gulf League – a hugely disappointing result given in the two previous campaigns they came home runners-up and third. It ensured the seven-time UAE champions’ wait for a first trophy in 13 years rumbles on.

A fresh season, though, offers fresh hope.

“Obviously Al Wasl need to get back on track,” Saleh says. “We didn’t do well last season, so a trophy or two next season would correct that. I believe I can help. I’m much more confident when I play and I feel it’s easier for me to score now. But I have worked hard for this. I’ve been training almost my entire life and I feel like it’s paying off.”

The ultimate pay-off, given the early morning text from dad last month, would be scoring for his country at the 2022 World Cup. The UAE have only once previously appeared at a global finals, back in 1990, nearly a full 10 years before Saleh was born.

Qualification for Qatar begins in September. Predictably, Saleh would love to play his part in getting the team there and beyond.

“The World Cup is the biggest stage there is,” he says. “To play there is everything you’ve been training for, everything you’ve been playing for, your entire life. It actually really means something.

“Going to the World Cup would not be just an honour for me, it’s for all the teammates, the entire UAE. It would make the whole nation happy. Every football player has dreamed of scoring on that stage, but especially for me, it’s something that’s always been there.

“Playing in the World Cup, scoring, doing something for the country. It’s just a way to give back.”

Updated: June 27, 2019 01:51 PM

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