x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

UAE football has lost sight of the lights of World Cup 1990

Although the UAE is fairly junior in the world of football, fans here have some great memories already. So it is regrettable that petty manoeuvring is delaying an attack on the game's real problems here.

Football's greatest moments are often inseparable from their radio or television commentary.

Herbert Zimmermann's immortal "Tor, tor, tor" greeted West Germany's winning goal in the 1954 World Cup final against the mighty Hungarians. Twelve years later came Kenneth Wolstenholme's "They think it's all over, it is now" as England beat the West Germans at Wembley. And perhaps the greatest of all, Bjørge Lillelien's astonishing celebration of Norway's 2-1 defeat of England in 1981: "Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana ... Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me, Maggie Thatcher, your boys took a hell of a beating, your boys took a hell of a beating."

For UAE football fans, Adnan Hamad's tearful "I can see the Roman lights" captured our hearts after the national team's qualification to the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy.

The UAE may have won the Gulf Cup in 2007 and reached the final of the Asian Cup in 1996, but its finest hour came in 1989. On October 17, the UAE, trailing by a single goal to China in a qualifier played in Singapore, miraculously scored twice in the final two minutes to keep their World Cup hopes alive.

Days later, 11 men representing a country that was not even in existence when they were born clinched their place in Italia '90 with a 1-1 draw with South Korea, prompting Mr Hamad's famous commentary. Emiratis and expatriates celebrated a scarcely believable achievement, and it remains the country's high point for the beautiful game.

At a time when UAE football is facing an uncertain future, the heights reached by the golden generation of Adnan Al Talyani offer a reminder of the talent that the country is capable of producing.

Two weeks ago, the UAE Football League, which managed the Pro League in its first three seasons, was disbanded by the General Authority of Youth and Sports Welfare "due to a violation over its official name", with the UAE Football Association taking over the running of the game. It is a shame that behind-the-scene politics are masking the true problems that continue to hamper UAE football: lack of investment, and interest, at the grassroots level.

Attracting world class talent, like Fabio Cannavaro to Al Ahli and Fabiano to Al Wahda, is important to raising the profile of the league, as is Al Wasl's recent coup in appointing Diego Maradona as coach. But such marquee signings should not come at the expense of massive debts that hinder the development of local talent and ultimately the national team.

Statistically, Pro League attendance rose 24 per cent last season, but the numbers do not accurately reflect the reality at most clubs, and have been skewed by the massive crowds that champions Al Jazira drew thanks to an impressive, community-driven marketing campaign that should act as blueprint for other clubs.

It could be argued that for years the generosity of the clubs' owners has unintentionally harmed their progress. Entrance to many matches was free, and yet the stadiums remained practically empty. There has never been a priority to attract fans like in a for-profit league. Such practices are not workable if a successful professional league is to flourish in an age of blanket television coverage of the Champions League, English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and international football.

The interim FA committee has a big job on its hands. But the overhaul of UAE football needs to be more than just in name. The country needs to fall in love with local football once again.

"Football is not about winning or losing, it's about glory": Danny Blanchflower's often-quoted, almost clichéd words may have been dulled over the years, but they remain true all the same.

At the 1990 finals in Italy, the UAE lost all three games, but nothing can erase the glory, and the memory of the golden generation. Or indeed, Adnan Hamad's famous words.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae