Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 August 2020

UAE great sporting moments - No 20: Al Ain become kings of the continent with Asian Champions League triumph

Garden City club beat BEC Tero Sasana of Thailand 2-1 on aggregate in 2003 final

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Every day over three weeks, The National looks back at the 21 greatest moments in UAE sports history.

A rebranded competition was provided a fresh winner.

In 2003, Al Ain became the first club from the UAE to capture what was now the Asian Champions League, the Garden City club flourishing on the continental stage to etch their name in history.

The tournament’s previous guise, the Asian Club Championship, had never produced an Emirati champion, a run dating back to its inception in 1967. But a new look brought with it a first-time victor.

Stars of that Al Ain team included Subait Khater, the energetic and enterprising midfielder, with Gharib Hareb to his right and celebrated Iranian Farhad Majidi in front.

Majidi was usually partnered by Mohammed Omar, who chipped in with three goals. Two of those came in the last four, while he notched the other in the final. In the end, Omar’s strike proved the inaugural Champions League’s decisive blow. Recruited from Al Wasl the year before, he’d delivered. He was trumped, though, in his side’s scoring stakes by Ivorian Boubacar Sanogo, who grabbed four goals in all.

Arguably, Al Ain had their trump card in the dugout. Bruno Metsu operated as a mentor and mastermind, the Frenchman later leading the UAE national team to their first Gulf Cup crown, in 2007. Having died in 2013 from cancer, Metsu remains much-loved.

His initial UAE success, the 2003 Champions League, came in an ultra-condensed competition. Al Ain topped their group, defeating Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, Iran’s Esteghlal and Qatar’s Al Sadd across a seven-day period in March. Conveniently for the country’s entrants, all Group C’s fixtures took place in Al Ain.

Within five weeks, Al Ain had seen off China PR's Dalian Shide in the semi-final across two legs, triumphing 4-2 at home before losing 4-3 away to scrape into the showpiece 7-6 on aggregate. Majidi’s 87th-minute goal in China was crucial.

Al Ain’s reward was a showdown with BEC Tero Sasana of Thailand, that October. Once more, they made most of home advantage. Cheered on by a capacity crowd at the Tahnoun bin Mohamed Stadium, Metsu’s men triumphed 2-0 thanks to goals from Salem Johar and Omar.

In the away leg, at the expansive Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok, Al Ain just about survived, hanging on following the home side’s goal from the penalty spot on the hour. The club had the trophy; the country its kings of the continent.

Yet the UAE’s fine start to the Champions League did not last. Yes, Al Ain returned to the final in 2005, only to lose to Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad. But a decade elapsed before a club from the Emirates reached that same juncture. Then two came along in successive years. Regrettably, Al Ahli were defeated in 2015 and Al Ain in 2016. Both were single-goal losses.

So the Champions League remains the country’s most coveted club cup; Al Ain its only victors. The wait, now stretching 17 years, only burnishes their 2003 run.

Updated: July 5, 2020 01:21 PM

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