Mahdi Ali: Player, bureaucrat, engineer, now coach
Mahdi Ali does not believe in half measures, whether he is leading a top government office or the UAE's age-group football sides.
While working for Dubai Municipality, he helped set up the Road Transit Authority (RTA), and masterminded Dubai's parking project and the ticketing system for the Dubai Metro.
The 44-year-old Emirati has, however, decided to focus on coaching football, and his next job is a daunting one: leading the UAE Under 23 side to the London 2012 Olympics.
"Football is my passion but I also believe in 100 per cent commitment on whatever I do, whether it is my job as a director of RTA or a football coach," he said.
"On my professional life, I have been involved in several major projects in Dubai and coaching has also become a project work for me. I had to deal with people at all levels and it has helped me on my football job, as well.
Ali, 44, has had unprecedented success in leading what has been dubbed the "golden generation" of Emirati players, beginning with the Under 19 Asian Cup championship in 2008 and continuing with a final-eight performance in the U20 World Cup in 2009 and, last year, a U23 Gulf Cup championship and a silver medal in the Asian Games.
Qualifying for London continues with a two-leg tie against North Korea away on June 19 and the return game at Al Ain four days later.
Qualifying-game winners will then be drawn into three groups of four with the winners of each to earn a direct passage to London. The three runners-up will go into a play-off round and the winner will play the fourth-placed team in the Confederation of African Football.
"I have been with these players for more than eight years and I know they have the potential to fulfil our Olympic ambitions," said Ali, who was appointed assistant coach of the UAE U16 team in 2003.
Ali flew out with the squad on Tuesday for a friendly against Hong Kong on Sunday before travelling to North Korea.
Bernard Schumm, the FA's director of coaching, holds Ali's achievements in high esteem. "We have several young Emirati coaches that have come out of the system and Mahdi Ali is one of them," Schumm said.
"The success he has had with the age-group team is yet the best by any Emirati coach. He has moulded this team into a champion unit and he is very ambitious to lead them to more success."
A former midfield player of note, Ali's coaching career began in 1998 with the U10s at the Al Ahli club in Dubai.
"It was a learning curve for me from a player to a coach," he said. "The club had offered me to be the team manager but I turned it down because I didn't like an administrative job in football. I always wanted to be with the ball."
He spent a year in London with his family in 2000 and earnt a coaching certificate, and later the football association sent him to Germany for his A level certificate.
The FA came calling in 2008, while he was on leave from his government job in Dubai, asking him if he would coach the U19 national team.
"I wouldn't have accepted the job if I wasn't on vacation and for that reason I agreed, because I could spend all my time on the job [coaching]," he said.
Following the success his side had in the Asian Cup, he said that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, gave him permission to stay with the age-group side for the U20 World Cup.
After reaching the quarter-finals in Egypt with the U20 team, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai and chairman of Ahli, urged him to continue coaching.
"I am proud of the successes I have had with the age-group team, and leading the team at the Olympics is my next goal," he said. "As a coach, I have achieved what I couldn't as a player and I am enjoying it."
Ali was on the national team for four years, three of them under the Brazilian, Carlos Alberto Parreira, and one year with Parreira's compatriot, Mario Zagallo.
"I had a lot of ambitions as a player and one was to play a full international, but I couldn't because of the injuries," Ali said. "I was in the national team for four years but played only in friendlies.
"Whenever we had an official game, I was injured. It was a huge disappointment for me."
The bigger regret he has is not being able to travel to the 1990 World Cup, the UAE's only appearance in the global event.
"I was in the 1990 World Cup squad and I was left out because I suffered an injury one week before the team's departure to Italy," he said. "It was a huge disappointment for me."
Ali took up football with Ahli's youth sides at age six, and he progressed steadily through their system. He made his first-team debut at the age of 16 in 1983.
"I played for more than seven hours a day," said Ali. "I kick the ball around before leaving to school, play at school breaks, play after school, and then at the club later in the evenings."
Ali won two President's Cup medallions and played a crucial role in the 1988 final against Al Shabab.
"We were down 1-0 with 10 players and I scored twice and made an assist to win 3-2," he said. "That was one of the highlights of my playing career."
It also came at a huge cost because he had to miss an examination at the Al Ain University to play the final.
"I was only thinking of football in my younger days," he said. "I had foregone the exam to play the final and it resulted in low marks. With all hopes lost on my academics, I started working with Dubai Municipality as a clerk.
"I didn't enjoy my work and quit one year later and started studying again. This time I took up completely different subjects and graduated as an electrical engineer from the Dubai College of Technology.
"I rejoined Dubai Municipality and was successful with several projects I did for them, I got promoted as a director.
"I learnt a lot from my work at the municipality and it has helped me in my coaching."
Baniyas appointed Ali as caretaker coach in April after the club parted company with Lutfi al Benzarti, who led them to promotion in 2009 and fourth in the Pro League in 2010.
"I had a couple of reasons for taking up the Baniyas job," said Ali. "A coach is like a player. He needs to be on the job all the time. I wasn't doing any work, so I accepted it."
It was also a prime spot for Ali to coach because six of his Olympic team players - Mohammed Fawzi, Theyab Awana, Amer Abdulrahman, Ahmed Ali, Haboush Saleh and Yousuf Jaber - play for Baniyas. "I could work closely with them," he said.
Baniyas were second in the league when Ali took charge and he maintained that position behind Al Jazira.
"It is not easy to take charge of a team past the halfway stage of the season but I took it up as a challenge," he said. "I am learning every day in every situation and every game."
Updated: June 9, 2011 04:00 AM