Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 23 August 2019

The Emirati superfan whose tears won hearts now dreams of glory at Asian Cup

Images of a crying Hareez Al Menhali in 2015 were beamed around the world - and he says viewers should 'expect the unexpected' from UAE on home soil

Hareez Al Menhali looks forward to the Asian Cup, four years on his live TV tears. Victor Besa/The National
Hareez Al Menhali looks forward to the Asian Cup, four years on his live TV tears. Victor Besa/The National

As Khamis Esmaeel, the Emirati midfielder, stepped up to take a crucial penalty in an Asian Cup quarter final shoot-out between the UAE and Japan, the camera zoomed in on Hareez Al Menhali.

“He can hardly watch, he’s almost in tears, that Emirati fan,” said the commentator. TVs across the globe showed a pained figure, hands clasped in prayer.

Esmaeel promptly blasted his spot kick into the Sydney night sky, squandering the UAE’s hard-won advantage in the shootout.

Millions watched as the camel farmer, who had travelled more than 10,000km to Australia to support the team despite not speaking any English, was overcome by emotion.

He’s definitely in tears now,” came the narration.

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Wall chart: Download and print your complete guide to the Asian Cup in the UAE here

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The close-up of Al Menhali’s anguished expression became one of the images of the tournament. When after more drama the UAE eventually triumphed in the shoot-out, in what was hailed as one of the greatest upsets in Asian Cup history, millions watched as tears of agony became ones of relief and joy.

Four years on, and the 42-year-old will not have to go to quite the same lengths to follow the UAE in their next Asia Cup adventure.

He will be there in Abu Dhabi, alongside five of his seven children, to see his heroes take on Bahrain. And Al Menhali, who speaks only Arabic, will not need the two scraps of paper – one with the address of the stadium he was travelling to and the other with the location of his hotel – that he relied on in Australia, along with hand gestures to navigate the country.

Football “brings people together,” he said, explaining his passion for a sport he fell in love with as a child.

“I see it as my duty to follow national team wherever they go.”

Since the famous video, the UAE superfan has even been back to Australia again, to watch the UAE’s World Cup qualifier against the Socceroos in 2017. He was also in London to follow the team in the Olympics in 2012, and says it would be a dream to see the UAE lift the Asian Cup, for the first time, on home turf.

“Football is love, it’s worship,” he said. “I’m optimistic about this tournament since it’s in the UAE. I’m asking all the UAE fans to support the team, but it will be down to what the players can give on the field. This is a big moment.”

Asked whether there will be more tears if the UAE can win, he says people should “expect the unexpected”.

Four years ago, Al Menhali was also in the stands to see the UAE lose to Australia in the semi-final, following the victory over Japan. In 1996, the last time the competition was held in the country, the UAE reached the final, when they lost to Saudi Arabia. Experts see them as potential dark horses in this tournament, although countries including Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia are seen as having a better chance of lifting the trophy on February 1.

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Every time Al Menhali sees the famous video of himself the 2015 quarter final, he says, he “lives the moment” all over again. By the time of the shootout, he explains, his emotions had been shredded as the UAE repelled attack after attack from the Japanese, then Asian Cup champions and the most successful side in the tournaments history, leading to his live TV breakdown.

“It was a very genuine moment for me, against Japan,” he told The National, speaking outside the Zayed Sport City Stadium, 48 hours before the stadium hosts the UAE’s opening match. “Every time I see the video I live the moment.

“I remember when I saw the camera on me I tried to sit and hide my tears, but then I let it out, expressed everything.

“When the crowd saw it on the screen they all started supporting me and encouraging me. The pressure on the UAE team from the Japanese had been huge. It was a very big moment for me.”

Updated: January 4, 2019 10:37 AM

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