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World Cup Stories: How the UAE defied astonishing odds to reach Italia 90

The UAE have played in only one World Cup, in 1990. Ali Khaled looks back on one of the most unlikely qualifications of all time.

(This story was first published in February 2018)

Two members of the squad, thinking they had already missed their flight, decided to take a detour to a café for a quick bite.

Their teammates meanwhile waited on the runway of Dubai International Airport.

The incident, told by a colleague over two decades later, says much about the UAE’s preparation for the final qualification round for the 1990 World Cup. It was nothing short of chaotic.


The two players, in the days before mobile phones, were eventually located and made to board the flight to Singapore, where the Emirates were to face South and North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China in a round robin tournament to determine which two Asian teams will head to Italia 90.

Tardiness and shawarmas were the least of the UAE’s worries, however.

Under Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who had already taken Kuwait to the 1982 World Cup in Spain, the UAE had come within seconds of reaching Mexico 86 at the first time of asking, only to fall to a heartbreaking injury time goal against Iraq.

Underdogs – and in 1989 the UAE were the least fancied of the six teams – rarely get second chances.

In the months before the squad headed to Singapore, Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, responsible for huge advances in Emirati football, had left his position as head of the UAE Football Association, leaving a rudderless ship aimlessly sailing into unchartered waters.

Without their guiding light, the UAE, managed by another Brazilian great, Mario Zagallo, stood little chance of qualifying.

The famous Emirati commentator Adnan Hamad, forever linked to this odyssey, years later conceded that the UAE where honouring their fixtures simply to avoid FIFA sanctions.

As the team landed in Singapore, their five rivals must have assumed at least three points were in the bag.



So little was expected of the UAE that the local press barely gave the team any coverage, relegating their snippets to the bottom of their sports pages, sometimes below news of local youth competitions.

The UAE’s opener was not even televised, and an apathetic audience back home hardly missed anything.

A drab 0-0 draw in muddy conditions left North Korea the more disappointed of the two sides.

Few would have suspected that the next match would go down as arguably the finest in the UAE’s history.

Trailing 1-0 to China in the closing stages of another rain-soaked encounter, the UAE ignored their aching limbs to score two goals in the 87th and 88th minutes through Khalil Mubarak and Adnan Al Talyani, the country’s greatest player.


In a matter of moments, their campaign had been transformed.

The next two matches produced cagey 0-0 and 1-1 draws against Saudi Arabia and Qatar respectively.

Remarkably, with South Korea already qualified, it left the remaining five teams all with a chance of qualifying on the last match day, October 28, 1989.

The UAE trailed the group winners but managed to equalise through Al Talyani’s header before halftime. That would be enough if Qatar could overcome China at the National Stadium.

In an astonishing repeat of the UAE’s match with China, Qatar overturned a 1-0 deficit in the dying minutes to win 2-1.

As the news reached the Jurong Stadium, the UAE players wept tears of joy. Against absurd odds, Zagallo’s team of amateur footballers had pulled off one of the World Cup’s greatest shocks.

To this day, Emirati football fans treasure Hamad’s tearful commentary.

“I can see the lights of Rome now, I can see the lights of Rome now.”


Italia 1990

To say the World Cup draw was not kind to the UAE would be a understatement. West Germany, Yugoslavia and Colombia awaited them in Italy.

Few people expected anything other than three defeats for the Emirates, by now overseen once again by Parreira.

Yet their participation was never going to be about goals scored and conceded. It was about putting the UAE on the map, and goalkeeper Muhsin Musabah recalls how some members of the press would literally ask the players to point out the country on the globe.

Indeed the UAE did not disgrace themselves in the opening match against Colombia in Bologna. Having given a good account of themselves throughout, they lost 2-0 to two second half goals from Bernardo Redin (50) and Carlos Valderama (85).

Up next were the mighty West Germans, a team many of the players admitted “terrified” them, at the San Siro in Milan.

In stormy conditions, the UAE held out until the 35th minute thanks to Musabah’s heroics, before Rudi Voller and Jurgen Klinsmann gave the Germans a two-goal lead at half time.

Straight from the restart, Khalid Ismail took advantage of a mistake to in the German defence volley past Bodo Illgner. The UAE’s first ever World Cup is also is one of its most cherished of all time.

An exhausted Emirati team went on to lose 5-1. Considering the Germans had already thrashed a powerful Yugoslavia 4-1 and would go to win the competition, it was not result to be ashamed of.

Eliminated as expected, the UAE had only pride to play for against the Yugoslavs back in Bologna.

Against the likes of Darko Pancev, Dragan Stoikovic and Robert Prosinecki, the UAE went down 4-1, Ali Thani scoring another memorable goal, to date their last ever in a World Cup.



No UAE team has come close to emulating the achievement of the country’s first “golden generation”.

Al Talyani, Ismail, Musabah, Al Thani and rest of their teammates had all been born before the UAE was even established as a nation on December 2, 1971. They, according to their own accounts, grew up playing football barefoot and in their kandooras on dusty streets across the seven emirates.

World Cup qualification was achieved before the country was even 19 years old.

“When a team from the Middle East qualified to the tournament in those days, you’d already won the World Cup,” Parreira said in 2014.

The UAE were losing finalists in the 1996 AFC Asian Cup on home soil, and the country’s second golden generation, led by Omar Abdulrahman, reached the semi-final of the 2015 edition in Australia.

Two Gulf Cup were finally won in 2007 and 2013, and there was a creditable performance at the 2012 Olympics in London too.

The country’s greatest footballing achievement, however, stands alone, achieved on the fields of Singapore almost three decades ago.


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