x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Salem Al Orafi looks for history to repeat itself for Baniyas

The captain of the 1992 President's Cup winning Baniyas squad is now the team's assistant coach. He tells Amith Passela his memories and excitement for the future.

Salem Al Orafi is hopeful Baniyas can lift the President's Cup tonight.
Salem Al Orafi is hopeful Baniyas can lift the President's Cup tonight.

In 1992, Salem Al Orafi held aloft the President's Cup, the first and only major trophy in the history of Baniyas football club. Tonight, he returns to the Zayed Sports City stadium as an assistant coach at Baniyas with fond memories from 20 years ago.

Al Orafi, the captain of the '92 team, recalled that he and his teammates went on to the pitch with the fear of losing the final to Al Nasr. This time, he says, the present team will be able to match Al Jazira and go into tonight's final full of confidence.

"It has been a very long wait but I am returning with a team that is on par with teams like Al Ain and Al Jazira this season," the 44-year-old Emirati said.

"When we reached the final in 1992, we were rank outsiders. We were scared of an opposition that was made up of some of the finest players in the country."

Several of the Al Nasr players in that game had represented the UAE in the 1990 World Cup finals, including Khalid Ismail, the captain who scored against Germany in Italy.

"The difference between us and them were incomparable," Al Orafi said. "But like going into a battle, we went with a lot of heart. The solidarity between the players and all those working with the team was incredible.

"We were ready to literally die for each other. That was the spirit with which we took to the pitch. And Abdulwahab Abdulkader [the current Ajman coach] made us believe we were a family."

In that final, played in June, Baniyas were trailing 1-0 until Omar Saeed equalised just before the break. Salem Hassan scored after the interval and Baniyas held on to win 2-1.

"When Nasr scored first, we thought it was all over for us," said Al Orafi. "Luckily we got an equaliser and that motivated us. The coach made us believe that if we could score against Nasr in the first half we can score again. And we did it.

"When the final whistle went off, I didn't know what was happening around me. My teammates were running around like crazy. Some were in tears, some were dancing and hugging each other.

"Normality was restored when we regrouped during the presentation ceremony and receive the trophy from Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed [then the president of the Football Association]. We were back in the club to celebrate with the entire town."

Al Orafi joined the club one year after it was established in 1981. He was playing for the school team at that time and was invited to play for Jazira, but preferred to enrol with the newly formed club in his hometown.

They had to play in the Under 18 league for the first two seasons before they could field a team in the second division.

"Unlike the professional era now, football was a favourite pastime for us at that time," Al Orafi said.

"We didn't care about being paid and some way or other we found the time to play. It was sheer passion at that time. Even now, it is not the money that has driven me to work with the club and the team.

"I have done this for 10 years for free after I decided to quit from the game in 1996. And I will continue to serve as long as the club wants my services."

Al Orafi still has his full time job at the Public Works Department but says professionalism is the way forward for the young Emiratis.

"It is their job now," he said. "The game has changed so much from our playing days until it turned professional in 2008. It was inevitable and I am in favour of it. The players benefit and the game is run how it should be run. We are still in the early stages in professionalism but I am sure it will get better every passing year."

Al Orafi was the technical director of Baniyas when he was asked to take over as caretaker coach for one month in November to replace Jorvan Vieira, the Brazilian, who was dismissed for poor results.

The Emirati led them in four games, winning one and drawing one in the two Pro League matches and two victories in the Etisalat Cup.

Al Orafi also travelled as the assistant coach with the UAE age group team for the Under 17 World Cup in Nigeria in 2009.

The Jaber brothers, Yousuf and Mohammed, and Amer Abdulrahman, have emerged from that age-group squad and all three are expected to be in the Baniyas line-up tonight.

"I always wanted to be involved in the game and took my B licence for coaching," he said. "I have worked with most of the players that have come through our age group system. We now have a lot of young and talented players.

"We are ninth in the league but that doesn't say the true story of our strength. We should be in the top four but for some unfortunate incidents and circumstances at the start of the season. We are in a position which we don't deserve to be."

Al Orafi foresees a bright future for Baniyas with a new stadium on the horizon.

"The present stadium in Al Shamka is a temporary arrangement until the new stadium is completed in a year or two," he said.

"A lot of good things have been happening in the last few years. We were runner up in the league and are doing pretty well in our first year in the Asian Champions League.

"We have a youthful squad and they will mature in a year or two. So the future looks very bright for us."

apassela@thenational.ae

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