Ali Saleh on his goal to help the UAE qualify for the World Cup in 2022
Being a professional athlete forces you to grow up quickly. From the minute you meet Ali Saleh he comes across as calm and composed, and then you realise that he was born in 2000.
“As a professional footballer it’s not just about going on the field and playing for yourself,” he says. “You have to learn the tactics of the manager and be ready to adapt your game for the benefit of the team.”
Still only 19-years-old, Saleh has long been tipped as one of the UAE’s most promising footballers, in fact, he holds the honour of being youngest-ever player to play in the UAE Pro League, having made his debut for Al Wasl the day after his 15th birthday.
“In the last four years, four different teams have won the league and the UAE were in the Asia Cup semi-finals”
The skillful young midfielder grew up admiring Cristiano Ronaldo, actively modeling his game and mentality on the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
While last season saw Saleh win the Golden Ball for Best Young Player in the league, and make his debut for the UAE national team, there is little chance that he plans on resting on his laurels. Regional football is at the most competitive level it has ever been.
“In the last four years, four different teams have won the league and the UAE were in the Asia Cup semi-finals,” he says with a laser-like focus.
“The level of the players in the GCC is improving, and players from the region have a really good chance of moving to Europe and playing for some really important teams. But for now, my focus is to help UAE qualify for the World Cup in 2022.”
We sat down with Saleh as part of Esquire’s 10 for the next 10 issue. You can read the whole interview below.
What players do you model your game off?
It’s always been Cristiano Ronaldo, growing up I was a Manchester United fan so he was a hero of mine. Like him, I also wear number 7, and I’ve always studied what he does well and try to bring them into my own game.
What goals have you set yourself for the next 10 years?
Personally I want to give my best on the field and help my team in any way that I can. For the national team, my goal is for us to qualify for the World Cup in 2022. That is what I am laser focused on. I think we have a really good chance of qualifying for the World Cup in 2022, we have a great squad and a very good manager. I really believe we can do it.
It is an exciting time to be a UAE player?
I think so, especially over the past couple of years the competition has become very competitive with four different teams winning the last four league titles. So hopefully this is a sign that things are only becoming more competitive and better.
Few GCC players have gone on to have successful careers in Europe, do you think this will change in the next 10 years?
I do. Football in the region is continually growing, and you can see the level of the players in the UAE and GCC countries improving. I think that players from this region have a really good chance of moving to Europe and playing for some really important teams, which is an important thing for our game.
How as the level of football within the region changed since you were a child?
The game has become a lot faster, which I see as a good thing for my game. Things happen so quickly that you have to constantly be on top of your game to perform well.
There is a lot more pressure on players these days. Football around the world has become so evolved that there is an immediate spotlight on you as a player these days where everyone wants to know things about you.
Is there a bigger focus on tactics in today’s game?
Yes, definitely. As a professional it’s not just about going on the field and playing for yourself, you have to learn to take on board the tactics and playing style of the manager, which can be tough because different managers want you to play different ways and you have to be aware of that and adapt for the benefit of everyone.
How do you deal with the constant media and social media attention?
I think that it’s part of the job now. You just have to deal with it. You’ll have bad days and good days, but it’s the media’s job to be on top of you for that, so you just have to focus on the football.
What is the most rewarding thing about your work?
When I’m walking down the street and some kids come up to me asking for a picture, and to know that I have impacted or influenced their lives in any way.