When Jose Mourinho's dismissal was overshadowed by Al Ain's win at Club World Cup
Six days after nearly exiting the competition against Team Wellington, the AGL champions beat River Plate to become the pride of the nation
On Tuesday night, the world was gripped by the only football story worth talking about.
The one about the famous Boss whose recent feats were so jarringly out of kilter with what had gone before that breaking point had been reached.
Social media was abuzz. At just before midnight, the list of top worldwide trends on Twitter contained each of “Mundial de Clubes”, “Enzo Perez” and “Caio”.
The only Portuguese-speaker meriting discussion by that point of the night was Caio. The journeyman inside forward who left his native Brazil as a teen as he could not find a professional club to take him, and who eventually earned his break via university football 17,000 kilometres away in Japan.
The man whose spellbinding display on Tuesday evening for Al Ain had helped bring about the most seismic result in the history of UAE – and maybe even all of Middle East – football.
The side from the UAE’s Garden City, who are known colloquially as “The Boss”, had brought down River Plate. The mighty Buenos Aires club for whom football is so important, they sometimes struggle to fulfill their fixtures, given the passions it inflames among their supporters.
Al Ain, of the little old Arabian Gulf League. Wow.
When the Fifa Club World Cup of 2018 was just 44 minutes old, Al Ain had been 3-0 down against a team of part-timers from New Zealand, whose captain does 40-hour weeks working on building sites before he even thinks about football. The UAE’s representatives at their home Club World Cup were on the brink of becoming pariahs in their homeland.
Six days later, Al Ain had become the pride of the nation – and there is little doubt that is who they are representing.
When they bundled in the opener against River Plate – a messy goal from a corner in which Marcus Berg, Tongo Doumbia and even some opposition defenders, each had a claim – the home supporters erupted.
That is as might be expected. But, rather than reverting to a default club anthem, chants of “UAE! UAE! UAE!” cascaded down the stands of the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium.
It was not just reactionary, either. Later, as the Ainway competed for air-time with the voluble, jumping, jiving mass of travelling support from Argentina, they again employed the “UAE” chant. This time, they also spelt out the shapes of the letters with their arms as they sang.
For 120 minutes, the atmosphere inside the stadium was like an unremitting series of electric pulses. Even the double blow of goals from Santos Borre, which gave the South American champions a 2-1 lead, did not remotely silence the Al Ain fans.
Neither did seeing Hussein El Shahat’s goal on the stroke of half time being erroneously ruled out for offside, after the intervention of the Video Assistant Referee.
Their players might have shrunk at that point. Neither they, nor their fans, did anything of the sort. They were emboldened by the task at hand – the assignment which, according to the tifo unfurled pre-kick off by Al Ain’s supports, was “Mission Possible”.
Caio was at times unplayable, even for defenders from a country so steeped in pedigree in that art as Argentina. Fittingly, it was he who levelled, and thus forced extra-time, drilling in a brilliant shot on 52 minutes.
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The penalty shootout which was needed to decide who advanced to Saturday’s final in Abu Dhabi was breathless, but it told a story, too.
Al Ain had made it through their stressful opener with Team Wellington by the same means. Noticeably, all five of their penalty takers that night were born outside of UAE – Ibrahim Diaky, Berg, Caio, El Shahat and Tsukasa Shiotani.
Caio and Shiotani took the first two in the series against River. Then it was left to three plucky Emiratis – Bandar Al Ahbabi, Amer Abdulrahman, and Rayan Yaslem, the young substitute – to take up the slack.
They were perfect. And when Khalid Essa, the goalkeeper who could lay fair claim to being considered the player of the tournament, repelled Perez’s final spot-kick for River, an improbably victory was sealed.
“We showed that in football, everything is possible when you believe, when you fight, when you support each other, when you respect each other,” Zoran Mamic, Al Ain’s manager, said, echoing the sentiment of that tifo. “Everything is possible.”
Updated: December 20, 2018 02:40 PM