Omar Almasri with the story of a UAE powerhouse.
On October 11, 2003, in the final of the Asian Champions League, two teams from opposite sides of the continent faced off for the biggest club prize in Asia. After winning the first leg at home by two goals, UAE club Al Ain, had to at least draw or lose by a single goal to put their hands on the trophy that has eluded UAE clubs for years, against BEC Tero Sasana of Thailand in Bangkok. Led by influential skipper, Salem Johar, and coached by Bruno Metsu, the most successful club ever to come out of the Gulf nation, held on and beat all odds to win the trophy, despite succumbing to a 1-0 loss. I remember that day; the Emirati commentator sounding all nervous and excited, the wild celebrations at the final whistle, Metsu getting lifted in the air, and the sight of their President, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Nahyan in tears, shows how much this trophy and this achievement meant not only to Al Ain, but to the UAE in general.
Al Ain, a club that came into the public eye after the highly publicized capture of Ghanaian star and former African Player of the Year, Asamoah Gyan from Sunderland, have achieved a lot of success in its relatively young history. Founded in 1968, “Al Zaeem” (means “The Boss” in English), as it’s so fondly nicknamed by its supporters, is UAE’s most successful club ever with 9 league titles in its cabinet, 4 on the trot in its most successful period from 1999-2004. In that 5 year period, Al Ain won, along with its four league titles, the Presidents Cup twice, the Emirates Union Cup, the Super Cup and of course, the greatest achievement of them all; the Asian Champions League.
The club is well regarded and taken care of by the country’s royal family, mainly because it’s located in the city where the late and beloved ruler, Sheikh Zayed Bin Al Nahyan, was born. It’s headed by his son, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, while the current ruler of the country, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed, is Honorary President of the club. Al Ain own two stadiums in the Qattara Stadium (aka Tahnoun Bin Mohammed Stadium) which seats around 14000 spectators and is considered the “lucky” stadium amongst Al Ain fans, and the Sheikh Khalifa International Stadium which can seat around 15,000 spectators, but the club currently play their matches at the Al Qattara due to ongoing maintenance on the Khalifa International Stadium.
Of course, this royal influence has also given the club another huge advantage, particularly regarding transfers and Al Ain has had some notable players, plying their trade for the club. Some of these include Ghanaian and Marseilles legend, Abedi Pele, who spent two years at the club from 1998-2000 and is regarded as one of the best foreign imports ever to play in the league. Other players include Chilean international and Palmeiras star, Jorge Valdivia, who became a fan favorite even captaining the club at a certain point. Iraqi internationals, Nashat Akram and Hawar Mohammed, former Tunisian international and 1998 World Cup participant Skander Souayah, former Paraguayan international Roberto Acuna, Egyptian football legend Hossam Hassan, Argentinean striker Jose Sand and Saudi Arabian international star and former Asian Player of the Year, Yasser Al Qahtani, are just some of the notable names who have had stints with the UAE giants or are still plying their trade at the club in the case of Al Qahtani.
Despite all these notable transfers and players, the best piece the club has ever made was the signing of French manager, Bruno Metsu, after he famously led Senegal to the quarter finals of the World Cup in 2002. Metsu formed, arguably, the club’s best ever side skippered by club legend, Salem Johar. Its defence marshaled by Fahad Ali, an excellent midfield containing the aforementioned Johar, Sultan Rashid who’s now the club’s first football team administrator, free kick specialist Subait Khater, Brazilian Rodrigo Mendes, Ali Al Ohaibi, and two top finishers in former Ivorian international, Boubacar Sanogo, and one of the country’s best ever goal scorers in Mohammed Omar.
The team dominated Emirati football in the two years Bruno Metsu spent as manager. Matches involving “Al Zaeem” were the most exciting and intense, including two; the 5-3 win over Al Wahda and the crazy 6-4 win against Al Ahli in which six, yes, six penalties were taken. Another memorable match was in the Asian Champions League semi final against Chinese side, Dalian Shide, in a thrilling two legged affair especially the second leg where the Emirati grabbed the all important goal in the dying moments of the game through substitute Farhad Majidi, and it ended in a 4-3 loss in Dalian and 7-6 win on aggregate. And another unforgettable match is the 1-0 win over Italian giants Juventus in Abu Dhabi, with the goal scored by Mohammed Omar who finished emphatically past one of the all time great goalkeepers, Gianluigi Buffon, a goal which will live long in the memory of every Al Ain fan who witnessed that goal.
After achieving so much for Al Ain and in the process, for UAE football in the two years that he spent with the club, Bruno Metsu controversially left to Qatar to coach Al Gharaffa, taking star player, Rodrigo Mendes, with him. Al Ain stuttered after his departure, and haven’t won the league title ever since. They’ve also struggled in the Asian Champions League, where they haven’t reached past the group stages since 2006, despite reaching the final in 2005 where they eventually lost to Saudi giants, Al Itihad. This struggle is due to coach instability and poor transfers that led to a disastrous last season where they were close to relegation, got embarrassingly knocked out of the Presidents Cup in the hands of minnows, Masafi, for fielding an ineligible player. These results led to the resignation of Sheikh Hazaa Bin Nahyan from his duties as Chairman of the club (kept his role as First Deputy President despite the resignation) being replaced by Sheikh Abdulla Bin Nahyan, and the sacking of Brazilian manager, Alex Gallo, whose appointment and credentials were questioned from the start.
This season, however, has been a different story. Al Ain is leading the standings, going on an 11-match unbeaten run which was snapped last week by a Mark Bresciano-inspired Al Nasr. Now coached by Romanian manager Cosmin Olariou, who led Steaua Bucharest to the UEFA or Europa League semi final in 2006, Al Ain have been excellent with Asamoah Gyan banging in the goals as expected, Argentinean Ignacio Scocco, who was acquired from Greek side AEK Athens, as well as Romanian international, Mirel Radoi, all proving to be a shrewd signings. Over the years, the club has been relying on their youth system, which has gained 7 national championships in different age levels in two years from 2009-2011, promoting the likes of Omar Abdul Rahman, who’s considered one of the best talents to come out of the country in recent years and is now a key player for the side. Al Ain have also signed a 3 year partnership deal with Spanish side Atletico Madrid in 2010, “cooperating in different sports, education, social matters and to pave the way for sports expertise exchange.”
The club had gotten into a bit of controversy when Al Wasl’s manager, Maradona, was allegedly being thrown stones at by Al Ain fans, during a match between the two sides earlier this season. They’ve also endured another disappointing campaign in the Asian Champions League, failing to get past the group stages.
To conclude, Al Ain have achieved success which many never expected in their young history. When you talk about Emirati football, you have to mention Al Ain, which shows how influential the club has been for football in the country. “Al Zaeem” has had its ups and downs over the years, just like any other club, but with the support they’ve, they’ll bounce back. They’re the reason why I got interested in the Emirati league and football in the country, in general, and who I’ve become fan of and still am till this day.
Long live Al Zaeem!