Omar Abdulrahman, UAE and superb Australian setting provided unforgettable Asian Cup
From Melbourne to Sydney, the 2015 AFC Asian Cup was quite a ride.
Wonderful organisation, welcoming locals, great football. And, at first, rain. Unrelenting rain.
“Welcome to Melbourne”, an Australian friend sniggered as we landed for the opening night. “Where you experience four seasons in one day.”
There was no Asian Cup fever, at first, but Australia’s success turned many of the cynics into football fans by the end.
For those of us following Mahdi Ali’s UAE team, it would prove a journey beyond expectations.
On the pitch, the team gave their supporters some marvellous memories. Majed Naser’s redemption. Mohaned Salem’s leadership. Ali Mabkhout’s goals. And pretty much everything Omar Abdulrahman did.
The behind-the-scenes moments I witnessed will live long in my memory.
From Day 1, Mahdi Ali, who would impress throughout with his tactical skills, charmed the continent’s media with his engaging press conferences and skill at translating Arabic into English and vice versa.
Canberra was initially quiet, making us wonder why organisers put matches there. But the UAE’s 4-1 win over Qatar got many locals on board, and from that moment everyone wanted more of Abdulrahman.
There was a lovely moment when the UAE squad patiently waited on the team bus as five Emirati students would not let go of two-goal hero and man of the match Ahmed Khalil.
There was the giddy reaction to Ali Mabkhout’s opening goal against Bahrain after a record-breaking 12 seconds. There were knowing nods in the press box; this team, led by the magical Abdulrahman, was going to make some noise.
More local fans asked for his autograph. More local media asked if he would play overseas. It would not be the last time the “Omar question” would be posed.
From the rain in Canberra to the heat of Brisbane, we followed Mahdi and his band of brothers. The media simply could not get enough of the story of the “16 players” who had progressed under his tutelage for over a decade.
The coach almost, but not quite, snapped over yet another question about avoiding Japan. “We’re happy to face anyone,” he repeated. Not for the first time, he was proven right.
A heartbreaking loss to Iran meant the UAE would indeed face the champions in the quarter-final. Few gave them any hope.
By the time we landed in Sydney, Amoory-mania was taking off. “Your No 10”, the foreign journalists would call him. Soon he was simply “Omar”. First-name recognition – like Cristiano, Leo or Xavi – is football’s highest form of flattery. In Australia, a football superstar was born, and he was Emirati.
Few memories can compare with that wonderful night in Sydney. On January 23, 2015, Mahdi Ali’s men delivered on his promise to lead the UAE to the semi-finals of the Asian Cup by beating Japan on penalties.
First, Mabkhout’s outstanding control and volley to give the UAE the lead. Later, the slow realisation as the second half progressed that we were witnessing an astonishing defensive performance from Salem. And the gasps of incredulity in the media tribune as Abdulrahman impudently, ingeniously pulled off his Panenka penalty.
“I told him not to do it again because my heart can’t take it,” Mahdi Ali said, prompting laugher from reporters.
A grateful Salem, minutes after being named man of the match, sought out the travelling journalists to thank them individually, and even threw in a few hugs. It was a touching moment, my personal highlight of the entire competition.
In the mixed zone, the players could barely keep the grins off their faces, like children on Eid.
The normally reserved Adnan Al Talyani, the nation’s greatest footballer and a member of the technical staff, struggled to hold back tears as he joined the squad in singing the national anthem to the small contingent of UAE fans, and later blowing kisses our way as he headed to the team bus.
“Stop this man”, a local headline said before Australia’s semi-final against the UAE in Newcastle, over the photo of the young man with the distinctive, bushy hair. Everyone knew the name by now.
It was not to be, as the UAE succumbed to the hosts. The players, disappointed but proud, gave the impression of a team that had nothing left to give. The heroic performance against Japan had proven an early final for them.
The journey was not over. The team gave us one last hurrah, the third-place play-off win over Iraq, and the UAE’s finest Asian Cup finish on foreign soil.
For the last time we faced Mahdi Ali, and predictably he was already looking ahead to the challenge of leading the UAE to the 2018 World Cup, his ultimate “dream”.
A little smile hinted that he might just allow himself a few moments of satisfaction over a memorable three weeks down under.
The rest of us won’t soon forget Australia 2015.
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Updated: February 1, 2015 04:00 AM