There are few stranger football grounds in the UAE than that of Al Nasr’s Al Maktoum Stadium. The emirates have a habit of cramming stadia into the least likely of places and, under the shadow of the Ferris wheel at Al Nasr Leisureland in Dubai, this is certainly one of the more peculiar. You can’t help but think: what would Thierry Henry and co make of this?
We arrive at stadium for the quarter final of the President’s Cup – a hard-fought goal fest in which Al Ahli stroll out eventual 4-2 winners. The ground is barely full; a crowd of around 300 struggle to make a dent in the 12,000 capacity. But, as the third goal for Al Ahli goes in, the sirens begin to howl and the guy in bare feet next to me begins stomping rather recklessly, it seems like a lot more.
This joy is all rather short-lived, however. Thirty seconds later, Sharjah go up the other end of the pitch and score. My neighbour is begrudging and performs a dismissive waft of his hand. No matter where you are in the world, this is the universal nature of football: from stomping to wafting in 30 seconds flat.
It is a timely reminder of some of the potential pitfalls Al Ahli might face in this month’s Fifa Club World Cup. Since scaling the heights of Pro League champions last season, 2009-2010 has seen inconsistent form and a swift change in management afflict the team. Out went Romanian coach Ioan Andone, in came former UAE youth coach Mahdi Ali. It was a shrewd move. Ali had led the UAE Under 19s to glory at the Asia Cup in Saudi Arabia last year, winning progress through to the U19 World Cup in the process. The slide that had afflicted the team since they won the UFL league on the final day of last season was soon turned around. Ali is a shrewd man.
Speaking to the thoughtful head coach, he is typically reticent about setting the bar too high for his team. ‘In football you can expect anything,’ he says, ‘and I am used to this. For any job that I do, it is important to fight to the end of the game or tournament. We have to work very hard and we have to show that there has been a lot of improvement in UAE football because we are representing the UAE.’
Clichés, too, are part of the game, but he’s right in more ways than one. Al Ahli provide a good chunk of the players for the UAE national side. A number of Ali’s former under-19 stars also turn out for the side, including the bright young thing of UAE football, Ahmed Khalil, who was named Asian Young Player of the Year in 2008 and has since progressed to the senior side. A dazzling free kick in the under-20 Fifa World Youth Cup a few months ago underlined the potential that saw his name linked to sides such as Chelsea and Portsmouth in the summer. None of which is lost on Ali, who sees the cup as an important way to groom national talent.
‘It’s a good advertisement for UAE football, it’s good for the fans and it’s good for outside clubs to come to the UAE and see for themselves,’ he carefully explains. ‘For us, it’s a good chance to play with a very strong team and for our players to get more experience and see for themselves what it’s like to play at a very high level.’
It’s fair to say Ali isn’t making any wild predictions. When we speak to him, he has yet to even fully run his eye over Al Ahli’s opening opposition, Auckland FC. ‘We only have statistics and key players,’ he admits, although this will undoubtedly change quite soon. Should they deflate the Kiwis, only tricky Mexican side Atlante stands in the way of a semi-final meeting with Barcelona.
It’s a promising thought. The head coach is unwilling to look further than the stars of the Catalan side in picking his players of the tournament. ‘When you watch that team perform, you just enjoy seeing them play,’ he gushes, and admits: ‘It would be fantastic for us to play with them.’ In recent years, though, the big sides have tended to come to this tournament rather sluggish, or (dare we say it) under prepared. I suggest this might offer teams like Al Ahli some hope. Ali is quick to stamp that idea out. ‘I don’t think these teams come to this tournament without motivation,’ he counters. That’s me told, then.
Certainly all UAE eyes will be on Al Ahli this month, although in recent times that hasn’t been such a good thing. The team is now finally beginning to regain its form after a season racked with injury, but it is off the pitch where some of the most peculiar moments have happened. One of the strangest incidents was when star striker Faisal Khalil, who has previously been capped for the UAE, was embroiled in accusations of performing ‘black magic’ to maintain his position in the national squad after he was arrested in September 2008 with two ‘Omani sorcerers’ in tow. There was also a bizarre incident a few months ago at a behind-closed-doors practice game against the Chelsea youth team, which quickly descended into what was described in the British media as a ‘mass brawl’. Both incidents have since faded away with little consequence.
But when the Fifa Club World Cup arrives, none of this will matter. The only thing of importance is what happens on the pitch and in the stands. Certainly home support will count for a lot; at least that is what Ali believes. Sat with the fans at Al Maktoum Stadium, my barefooted companion roaring as Al Ahli’s star Brazilian striker Bare puts his fourth goal of the game past the lowly whites of Sharjah, it seems that he could be right. Barcelona won’t know what hit them. Al Ahli play the opening game of the tournament against Auckland FC on December 9.