Ibrahim Diaky feels right at home at Al Jazira
When Ibrahim Diaky was granted UAE citizenship in 2006, the hope was that the dynamic midfielder could play for the national team. But good intentions led to unintended consequences.
He had played in one international match for Ivory Coast, the country of his birth, coming on as a substitute in a 2002 World Cup qualifier, against Libya. That made him ineligible to play for the UAE but also angered Ivorian football officials.
"People don't know the real story," said Diaky, 28, who was born in Abidjan, the capital. "They feel I have betrayed them to take up the UAE citizenship.
"When I was offered the UAE passport with the intention of playing for the national team, I informed all those concerned that I was ineligible for them because I had already played for Ivory Coast in the 2002 World Cup qualifier.
"These officials said they will try and, if not, I can still play as a local player for the club. And I agreed. The Ivorian FA criticised my decision because they thought I had the potential to play for them. However, I wasn't sure I had a permanent place at that time."
After playing 20 minutes against Libya in an away game, which Ivory Coast won 3-0, he was called up a for three team get-togethers, but did not get another opportunity to be in the final squad.
"I was left in the dark," he said. "There was no guarantee I would play for Ivory Coast again. I had this offer from the UAE that I couldn't refuse. It was my future and I don't have any regrets. I still play good football and am financially stable to raise a family."
Diaky found a home in the UAE with Al Jazira. He has been a fixture in the first XI for the Abu Dhabi side since he arrived in time for the 2004/05 season.
Diaky said he got into football "like everybody, from the streets and later at school". He joined a private academy at ASEC Abidjan, and at the age of 16 he was playing right back for the senior team.
He moved to Esperance Sportive de Tunis, in Tunisia, and played for three seasons. Then came the move to Jazira, which followed a roundabout path. His first experience in the country was in a trial with Al Ain, who had won the 2003 Asian Champions League under the French coach Bruno Metsu.
"Metsu later told me not to sign for Al Ain as he was moving to Al Gharafa in Qatar," Diaky said. "He promised to take me with him. So I returned to Tunisia.
"I don't know if I had impressed anyone, but officials from Jazira came to me for talks in Tunisia. They gave me a good offer and I wanted to leave Tunisia, anyway, so I agreed to join Jazira, which has now become my home."
Jazira have grown in stature as one of the most consistent teams in the country's top league during Diaky's stay. They finished third for three seasons from 2005, and second the past three.
Currently, they are seven points clear at top of the Pro League table as they pursue their first top-flight championship.
"It is very painful not to win any silverware in my seven years at the club," he said. "It is more frustrating because we have been working very hard and not winning a major domestic title. Winning the Etisalat Cup last season was some consolation. We are in a good position at the moment but that doesn't guarantee us success."
They are out of contention for the current Etisalat Cup but play Emirates, the defending champions who were relegated from the Pro League, in a President's Cup quarter-final match tomorrow.
"This is the most difficult period for us because every team wants to beat us as we are the top team," he said. "It means we have to keep working even harder and keep our focus until we are guaranteed of the league."
Diaky is married and father to an 18-month son, Ismail, born in Abu Dhabi. He is named after the player's uncle, Ismail Diaky.
"Uncle Ismail was my mentor," he said. "He was a fantastic player but never made it to big-time football for reasons I cannot explain. He taught me all the skills and tricks when I was growing up and supported me in my career."
Diaky would like to see his son pursue a football career because he has already shown signs of carrying the family name into the next generation.
"It is hard to say what he will do when he grows up. He has started kicking any round object and whenever I switch on the TV, he screams 'goaaal', which he has picked up from the televised football games.
"I am also very comfortable living in Abu Dhabi. I visit my relatives every year and my parents and some of the family members visit us here in Abu Dhabi. I have a lot of Emirati friends and my colleagues at the club are like an extended family."