Khalid Ismail, the sharpshooter of the UAE
"I'm sorry sir, you cannot leave your car there," he whispers apologetically to the tall, imposing figure walking towards him. "You need to leave it ?" The valet is hushed when the man, dressed in a plain white dishdashah and ghutra, announces, while quickly flashing an identification card: "I work for the government. Look after the car for me. And there is a gun in there."
It would seem Khalid Ismail, the former UAE footballer who scored the Emirates' first goal at a World Cup, is still trusted when it comes to shooting. The 44-year-old netted against West Germany at the 1990 World Cup in Italy - the Emirates' first and only foray on to the game's global stage. But, as he strolls through the lobby of the plush hotel, he explains that now he is more prominently known for being Deputy Chief Fire Officer for Dubai airports, which is why he carries a gun.
Today, Ismail was meeting up to reminisce, not talk about work. And that means football. With the domestic side Al Nasr, he was deployed as a striker, routinely hassling centre-halves, chasing lost causes and scoring a hatful of goals. At national level, he was assigned to control the left side of midfield, a role that resulted in him shuttling up and down the wing with both attacking and defensive responsibilities. With Nasr, between 1986 and 2000, he competed in regional and continental competitions, but nothing, he says, came close to the buzz of representing his country on the global stage.
"Going to the World Cup, it is everybody's dream to do that. It changes your life," says Ismail, sitting and sipping a Turkish coffee. "I played in four Asian Games and five Gulf Cups, but the World Cup is different.
"We were amateurs at that time and paid around Dh1,700 ($462) per month, but we were treated like professionals. Wherever we went, we had security with us and nobody could get close. We even had our own chef, cooking Arabic dishes for the players and staff."
The UAE played three games at Italia '90, losing 2-0 to Colombia, 5-1 to West Germany and 4-1 to Yugoslavia. While the team captain Abdulrahman Mohammed said last year that the players were simply happy to be there, Ismail is adamant the Whites arrived intent on causing an upset - even against the Germans, who would later go on to lift the World Cup for the third time.
"The goal was always to draw or to win; never to lose," he says. "Before the Germany match, Sheikh Hamdan [bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the FA President at the time] came to us and said if we draw, each player will get Dh50,000-60,000, which at that time was a lot of money.
"If we won we would get Dh80,000-90,000. But we couldn't do anything. "The problem was that, two months before the tournament, we changed coach."
He continued that "we had Mario Zagallo in charge before the World Cup and then, as we were preparing to leave for Italy, Carlos Alberto Parreira took over."
Ismail and Parreira, the Brazilian who would lead his native country to success four years later in the United States, had a frosty relationship, which resulted in Ismail being left out of the team for the Emirates' opening-day defeat against Colombia.
"Zagallo had confidence to allow us to play and that gave us the confidence we needed to play well," Ismail said. "If Zagallo had taken us to the World Cup, maybe we would have done something in 1990, but Carlos Alberto was different.
"He just wanted to play defensively; he was scared of conceding and fearful of playing openly. He was so intent on defending that he sacrificed our attacking threat. This made the players scared to play an open game."
In two warm-up friendlies, the UAE had lost to Poland and Hungary in embarrassing fashion. After the 2-0 loss to Colombia, Parreira had been in charge for three games and his side had conceded nine goals and failed to score.
The local media were in uproar, demanding answers - and results. Something had to be done, and Ismail was reinstated.
The Emirates' second match came against Franz Beckenbauer's West Germany, but by half-time the future world champions had already scored twice against the Gulf's sole representatives.
"We knew they were better and they proved that by going on to win the championship," Ismail said. "Carlos Alberto told us at the break to play within zones. He told me very clearly, 'Khalid I do not want to you going too far forward.' But I was a naughty player, so, of course, I did not listen to him and I went forward ?"
Ismail, back in Dubai and turning his buzzing phone to silent, smiles as he remembers the scene at the San Siro on his historic day.
It was June 15, 1990 and a local businessman had promised that the first Emirati to score at the World Cup would be presented with a Rolls-Royce. Ismail had spent the two weeks before the tournament "dreaming about the different colours the car could come in".
As a long, searching ball flew out of the Emirates' defence from the foot of Yousuf Hussain and bounced over the German backline, Ismail controlled it with his left foot before unleashing a low drive that slipped under Bodo Illgner, the goalkeeper, and nestled in the far corner of the net.
The Rolls-Royce - and a place in the record books - was his. "When it went in, well, wow, it was incredible," says Ismail, whose boots from the match were last year donated to charity, raising more than Dh300,000.
"Scoring against Germany was important to me and important for the country. When we arrived home, everybody was proud. People say it was the best goal of my career; it was not.
"It was a good goal, a historically important goal, but not my best. And despite what you may have read, I never received the car." Ismail's goal was enough to warrant a starting place in the Whites' final match of their campaign, against Yugoslavia. T
he striker is adamant Parreira's negative tactics were the reason the UAE did not score more.
"The problem was Carlos Alberto. He told us in the dressing room before the match that we need to defend deep and nobody can attack, so we played the game the way we were instructed and within 10 minutes they had scored twice," he says.
"The players came together and we decided among us to play open. The more attacking we did, the more Yugoslavia had to defend and we scored the next goal through Ali Thani. We also had many more chances to score after that and although we lost, if we had played like that from the start, maybe we could have got something against Yugoslavia."
Parreira, having lost the dressing room, resigned shortly after the Emirates' exit and took up a post with Bragantino, the Brazilian side. But having returned to the international scene with Brazil twice - in 1994 and 2003 - and Saudi Arabia in 1998, he will once again coach a foreign nation at a World Cup this summer when he leads out the host nation in South Africa next month.
However, Ismail, the man with the gun nestled in his car, shoots from the hip when it comes to condemning his former coach. "I like Carlos Alberto, but sometimes he is confused," he says. "He has a very strong personality, but the problem until now remains the same: most coaches change their tactics in keeping with the game they are playing - whether that is in Europe or a World Cup or a league match - but he refuses to.
"He is still playing that same defensive style. I can guarantee 100 per cent that South Africa won't progress past the group stages. With this team and this coach they have no chance."
If Ismail's prediction comes true, Parreira will not only become one of only two coaches to lead five separate nations in the World Cup, but he will also be inexorably associated with the first host nation incapable of progressing through their group in the 80-year history of the tournament.
Updated: May 29, 2010 04:00 AM