Will the UAE qualify for the 2018 World Cup?

They have the form, they have the coach and they have the talent, but can the UAE national football team’s “golden generation” make it?

Gareth Rees March 28, 2016

On June 9, 1990, the United Arab Emirates national football team lost 2-0 to Colombia at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara in Bologna, Italy. Despite the defeat, it was the greatest moment in the team’s 18-year history. It was UAE’s first game at any World Cup.

The squad of amateurs, who had reached the tournament under the guidance of Brazilian great Mário Zagallo, who won the World Cup twice as player and twice as coach, was replaced by another former Brazil manager Carlos Alberto Parreira prior to the tournament, and went on to lose 5-1 to West Germany and 4-1 to Yugoslavia, before catching the flight home to the UAE. But the results didn’t matter.

“The UAE national team has qualified once for a World Cup, in 1990, and they played three games and lost three games, but the achievement was to reach the tournament, not so much what they did on the field when they were in Italy,” says Gary Meenaghan, a freelance sports journalist and author of From an Ugly War Comes a Beautiful Game: A History of Football in the United Arab Emirates, slated for publication this month. “The fact that this team of amateurs, who had full-time jobs – teachers, airline pilots and so on – were playing in a World Cup all of a sudden – it was a remarkable achievement.”

The UAE team have not qualified for a major international tournament since 1990, but in the era of professional football in the UAE – the UAE Arabian Gulf League (formerly the UAE Pro League) has been professional since 2007 – many believe that the current squad, known as the golden generation could qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

But qualifying for the Russia tournament is not going to be easy, or quick. For the UAE team, the journey began in June 2015, with the commencement of round two of the Asian Football Confederation’s complex qualifying competition. 

The second round, which involves eight groups of five teams fighting it out for 12 places in round three, will be completed this month. The UAE are currently sitting in second place in a tough Group A, with regional big guns Saudi Arabia, who have qualified for four previous World Cups (1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006), currently topping the table, three points ahead of the UAE.

The UAE defeated Palestine (2-0) on March 24 and will play Saudi Arabia tomorrow (March 29), in Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium. Another victory will place the UAE in a strong position to qualify for round three of the competition. If they manage to qualify, they will be aiming to finish first or second in one of the two groups in round three to ensure a place at the World Cup. Otherwise there will be a fourth round followed by an intercontinental play-off.

“You always want your best generation to make it to a World Cup,” says James Montague, a freelance sports journalist who explored the world of football in the Middle East in his 2008 book When Friday Comes: Football in the Warzone. “If they make it to the next round, they have got a good enough team to make it past the final round [and to the World Cup], but until they do, they will always be living in the shadow of the 1990 team.” 

Meenaghan says it wouldn’t be a complete failure if the UAE didn’t make it, either to the third round or the 2018 World Cup, but it would be an amazing achievement if they did. “The World Cup is the be all and end all, essentially,” he says. “Everyone wants to qualify for the World Cup, and that’s the main target [for the UAE team]. The Asian Cup is second to that, and they did very well at the Asian Cup in 2015, so the next step is definitely the World Cup. If not 2018, definitely 2022, especially given that it’s in Qatar.” 

Currently ranked 64th in the world, their highest position since 2001, the UAE, on paper at least, are a stronger team than Saudi Arabia (75th). They finished third in the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, a campaign that included an impressive quarter-final victory over Japan, a nation that has qualified for the last five FIFA World Cups, before losing to hosts Australia in the semi-final and finally defeating Iraq in the third place play-off. It was a respectable result in what has become an important competition.

“The Asia Cup is growing in stature every tournament,” says Montague. “It was really well organised in Australia. I think it has raised the profile of Asian football, and what was once seen as a minor curiosity is now seen as a tournament that really challenges the likes of the Africa Cup of Nations. It’s something that the world looks to for players to emerge – it is now a major tournament.”

The Saudi Arabia game in King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah was thrown away by the UAE’s star player, Omar Abdulrahman, who conceded a penalty in the 89th minute, proving that even the brightest of the “golden generation” is fallible. But it was a rare failure for Abdulrahman, the 24-year-old playmaker who has had a trial for Manchester City and who many believe has the potential to play for a top team in Europe. “He’s a fantastic talent,” says Meenaghan. “It’s easy to get carried away when you’re living in the Emirates and you’re watching football and one guy stands out. But he is genuinely a very, very, very good player.” 

However, the real lynchpin for Meenaghan is the UAE’s head coach Mahdi Ali, a former international player who narrowly missed out on the 1990 World Cup squad. “The key thing about Mahdi Ali is that he has had this group of players since they played under-19 football,” he says. “So he’s worked with the likes of Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout since they were teenagers. There’s a lot of respect there between him and the players – he’s a father figure, so they don’t want to let him down.”

UAE’s chances of qualifying for the second round now rest completely on the game against Saudi Arabia. “It’s arguably the most important game the UAE has played for many years,” says Meenaghan. “It’s especially exciting because it’s on home soil. Hopefully they will get a sell-out crowd.”

A crowd that perhaps will see the UAE take a crucial step closer to their first World Cup appearance in more than 25 years.