With the UAE’s qualifying for the 2014 World Cup starting against India, Paul Oberjuerge looks back at the past six campaigns.
Qualifying for 1990 World Cup 'the best moment in our history'
Twenty-two years have passed, but Abdulrahman Mohammed distinctly remembers that glorious day in 1989 when the UAE wrested a point from South Korea and qualified for the 1990 World Cup finals.
"We knew all we had to do was draw," the former UAE captain told The National in 2009. "But Korea scored first and that meant we really had to attack them. Thankfully, Adnan [Al Talyani] equalised and we drew 1-1.
"When the referee blew the whistle for the game to end, it was something I will never forget, something incredible. This, for me, was the best moment in the UAE's football history."
Abdulqadir Hassan, a goalkeeper on that UAE side who now works for the Football Association, this week remembered the elation of that day.
"We were more than happy because it was the first time for us in the World Cup," he said. "But it was not just for our team, it was for the whole UAE."
It is a moment of elation the national side were unable to replicate over the past five World Cup cycles. More than once, they came close. Once, they fell at the final hurdle.
The UAE begin their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign tonight in Al Ain against India, and they hope to take a successful first step in the first leg of a home-and-away tie. The aggregate winner advances to the first round of Asian Football Confederation group stages.
The loser is done for four more long years.
Here is a review of the UAE's qualifying history, working back to that "best moment" in 1989.
2010: 4.5 Asia berths
Qualified: Australia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea
With a championship in the 2007 Gulf Cup providing reason to believe, a veteran team vaulted over the first hurdle, routing Vietnam 6-0 on aggregate. Two goals by Ismail Matar in a 3-2 away victory over Kuwait was then impetus to a second-place finish in the first round of group play and a place in the final round.
However, the UAE suffered a pair of 2-1 home defeats, to North Korea and Saudi Arabia, to open the final round, settling to the bottom of the five-side Group B and never budging. A home draw against Iran provided the sole point the UAE won from eight matches.
Bruno Metsu, the coach, was dismissed after the second game, and his French compatriot, Dominique Bathenay, was unable to revive the side.
Bathenay said: "If we had won those two opening games, we would have had six points. Our morale would have been high and we would have been battling for qualification. But after losing those two games, we went to South Korea, which is never an easy place to travel. We lost and did not have a single point from three games and after that it was very difficult."
2006: 4.5 Asia berths
Qualified: Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea
As they travelled to a game at Thailand in October 2004, the UAE seemed headed for a decisive home game against North Korea a month later to see who would win Group 5 and advance to the final round of group play.
But things went horribly wrong in Bangkok against a lesser opponent. The UAE lost 3-0 even as North Korea defeated Yemen 2-1 and clinched the group. Saleh Obaid's goal led to a 1-0 victory over the Koreans a month later, but the UAE finished a point back and were done.
2002: 2.5 Asia berths
Qualified: China, Saudi Arabia (Japan and South Korea co-hosts)
More than 18,000 fans jammed Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi on October 31, 2001, as the UAE played Iran with a chance to move ahead to a play-off with Ireland for a berth in the 2002 finals.
The UAE, coached by Tini Ruijs of Holland, had limited Iran to a 1-0 advantage in Tehran six days before, and with the in-form Al Ali striker Mohammed Omar in the side, the UAE clearly had a fighting chance to score twice and win on aggregate.
However, the Iran star Ali Daei scored in the seventh minute, effectively leaving the UAE in a two-goal hole because of the away-goal rule, and Iran went on to a 3-0 victory. Kahled Awadh, now the deputy chief executive of the Al Wahda club, was the team manager for that UAE side.
He recalled: "We were better on the field, but they knew how to score and finish the game. If you look at the game itself, technically we were better. But it didn't help us in the final score."
1998: 3.5 Asia berths
Qualified: Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea
Most of the UAE team had played in the 1996 Asian Cup side that memorably reached the final before losing in a shoot-out to Saudi Arabia, and they started well in the final round of qualifying.
After earning an impressive 1-1 draw in Tokyo in the sixth round of eight, the UAE were second on eight points to Japan's seven, and if they could hold on they would get a home-and-away play-off for a berth. Even if they lost that they would have another home-and-away, versus Oceania champions Australia, with a chance to go to France 1998. However, Japan jumped over the UAE on November 1, 1997 by defeating South Korea in Seoul while the UAE were held at home by Uzbekistan.
One week later, Japan consigned the UAE to third place in the group and a failed campaign by defeating Kazakhstan 5-1, rendering moot the UAE home match versus South Korea a day later.
1994: 2 Asia berths
Qualified: Saudi Arabia, South Korea
A victory over Japan in the final round of Group F would have given the UAE first place and a berth in the six-team final round in Qatar.
However, a team including the veteran striker Adnan Al Talyani and captain Abdulrahman Mohammed were held 1-1, in Dubai, and the UAE were out.
Surely, they would be back soon.
1990: 2 Asia berths
Qualifying: Saudi Arabia, UAE
The UAE survived a scare in the first round of the group stage, defeating Kuwait 1-0 with a goal by Al Talyani and routing Pakistan 4-1 in Sharjah thanks to goals by Khalid Ismail, Abdulrazaq Ibrahim, Abdulaziz Mohammed and Al Talyani to win the group on goal difference from Kuwait.
Six sides travelled to Singapore for the final round, with the top two teams advancing to Italy. After five rounds, the UAE were second, but China, North Korea and Qatar could catch them, depending on results.
The UAE's final game, against leaders South Korea, was played on October 28, 1989 at Darulmakmur Stadium in Kuantan, Malaysia. The Koreans scored in the eighth minute but Al Talyani levelled in the 16th. As the Emiratis clung desperately to a point, word came that Qatar had defeated China in Singapore, allowing the Emiratis to celebrate a berth in Italy 1990 when the whistle blew.
As the match ended, the Emirati broadcaster Adnan Hamad famously shouted: "I can see the Rome lights!"
Abdulqadir, the goalkeeper, said that going to the World Cup finals was a matter of skill and a dollop of good fortune.
"It had been our target to play in the World Cup, and we accomplished it," he said.
"We had good players in that team, but I believe many of the other teams had players just as good as we were, and maybe a little better. We were good, but we were also a little bit lucky.
"Now I would like to see this current generation experience the same feelings that we did."