UAE's greatest footballing triumph retold in a new documentary
To celebrate the release of the documentary Anwar Roma at this month, director Ali Khaled gives us a never-before-seen look at the story of the UAE’s qualification to the Italia '90 World Cup - the country's greatest footballing triumph.
George Best. Ryan Giggs and Ian Rush. Eric Cantona and George Weah. Alfredo Di Stefano! Some of football’s greatest names never experienced what it’s like to play in a World Cup finals tournament. But then then there are far less well-known players who do know it is like to step on the ultimate stage.
“The World Cup has a completely different atmosphere. Whoever hasn’t been there wouldn’t understand what playing in the finals is like.” Those words come from former UAE forward, Nasser Khamees, and are testament to one of the most unlikely World Cup odysseys of all-time.
The story of how an unfancied Emirati team upset the odds to qualify for Italia ’90 is now being retold thanks to Image Nation Abu Dhabi’s documentary Anwar Roma [The Lights of Rome]. And though 26 years is a long time for even avid supporters to instantly recall the UAE’s sole participation at the World Cup, the achievement lives on in the collective consciousness of Emiratis, even if the hazy memories sometimes need refreshing.
When Image Nation took on the challenge of producing Anwar Roma, it was exactly with that objective in mind.
“The Lights of Rome is so close to my heart as it tells the story of my childhood,” says Mohammed Al Mubarak, chairman of Image Nation Abu Dhabi. “This film is not only another entertaining and informative documentary to add to our slate, but will also serve as a historical documentary that finally details the legacy of what those players achieved for the UAE and for Middle Eastern football.”
In short, the UAE became the third Gulf country to play at a World Cup, following Kuwait at Spain ’82, and Iraq four years later in Mexico. But mere statistics barely scratch the surface of the story. For a country that was only 19 years old it was a stunning achievement. Every player involved was born prior to the unification of the seven Emirates on December 2, 1971, meaning they grew up in a nascent education system offering extremely limited resources for any would-be footballer.
The circumstances and backstory of the team’s qualification are what make it even more astonishing almost three decades later. Four years earlier, the UAE had, in their first ever qualifying campaign, come within seconds of effectively reaching the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. An injury-time goal by Iraq in a two-legged playoff killed the dream and left a nation heartbroken. It seemed its chance of glory had come and gone, and few expected a second chance in the final round of qualifying in 1989. The UAE Football Association was in turmoil, the public and the local press were largely disinterested.
And on top of all that, they were pitted in a tougher qualifying group format against the continent’s best teams.
The feeling was that an unprepared team was no match for South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, North Korea and China.
But what they did have was a team of committed players, led by the legendary Brazilian coach, Mario Zagalo, winner of the 1958 World Cup as player and the 1970 tournament as a coach. And over a period of 16 days in October 1989, they would go on to write the most glorious chapter in their footballing history, giving rise to the ‘Miracle in Singapore’, the ‘Golden Generation’, and, 26 years later, to the memorable, goose-bump-inducing commentary from Adnan Hamad, who weeps “I can see the lights of Rome now,” as it dawns on him that the UAE had turned a distant dream into reality.
The names of Adnan Al Talyani, Fahad and Nasser Khamees, Ali Thani, Abdulrahman Al Haddad, Khalid Ismail, Yousuf Hussain, Muhsin Musabah and Abdulqadir Hassan may not be recognisable to football fans around the world. But with Anwar Roma having premiered at DOC NYC on November 17, those names are now becoming known to international audiences.
“Through our documentary work, we have the opportunity to memorialise important cultural and historical events for the UAE,” says Danielle Perissi, head of documentary and factual entertainment at Image Nation Abu Dhabi. “We hope it will leave a lasting impression for the next generation of Emiratis, as well as the broader community in the UAE and around the world.”
Anonymity is nothing new to the heroes of 1990. When the UAE squad travelled to Italy, few opposition players or managers could identify them. The players themselves modestly admitted they were a “no-name” team and recall how rival supporters and officials would ask them to point out their country on a world map. Lothar Matthaus, West Germany’s captain at the 1990 World Cup, recalls in the documentary that few of his teammates had any idea of what the UAE stood for, beyond perhaps recognising the names of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. And yet here were the members of the UAE squad showcasing their talents alongside Matthaus and other superstars like Diego Maradona, Marco van Basten, Paul Gascoigne and Roberto Baggio.
These were all players that, according to Yousuf Hussain, who played centre-back for Sharjah Club, “we used to look forward to watching on television, never mind playing alongside in a World Cup tournament.”
The team’s presence in Italy also had a cultural impact that transcended football, and it wasn’t long before the UAE slowly began to get genuine respect. “We landed in Rome airport and were greeted by our flag,” says Adnan Hamad. “On the streets our flag was among those of the qualified nations. On our way to the old city there were pictures from the UAE and UAE flags everywhere. Our appearance in the 1990 World Cup not only gave a boost to the UAE team, but to the whole nation.”
On the pitch, the UAE were well prepared by new coach Carlos Alberto Parreira (pictured below) — who would go on to manage Brazil to World Cup victory in 1994 — but ultimately faced mission impossible, having been placed in an unforgiving group with Colombia, Yugoslavia and the eventual winners, West Germany.
The results were unsurprising. Parreira’s men played valiantly in their matches but lost all three: 2-0 to Colombia in their opener in Bologna, 5-1 to the Germans in torrential conditions at Milan’s San Siro stadium, and 4-1 under the sun back in Bologna. But these were by no means embarrassing score lines and the results hardly mattered anyway, as this was still a tournament of landmarks for the UAE.
There was the spirited debut against Colombia. Khalid Ismail went down in history as the first Emirati to score a World Cup goal, against Bodo Illgner in the German goal. UAE goalkeeper Musabah and his defenders performed heroically to keep the Germans at bay for 37 minutes before the Europeans’ superior experience and power won out. Against a gifted Yugoslavia, Ali Thani scored a wonderful header, and at 2-1 the UAE went head-to-head with one of the tournament’s best teams before again running out of steam.
By the time they packed their bags, the Emirati players had exchanged shirts with the likes of Carlos Valderrama and notorious goalkeeper René Higuita; Lothar Matthaus, Jürgen Klinsmann, Rudi Völler and Andreas Brehme; and Dragan Stojkovic, Darko Pancev and Robert Prosinecki. The UAE’s Golden Generation would not rub shoulders with such exalted company again, but their place in Emirati folklore was assured. “When you qualified to the tournament in those days,” Parreira says of those heady moments, “you’d already won the World Cup.”
- - -
Ali Khaled is freelance sports writer and the director of Anwar Roma, which goes on general release in the UAE on December 1