During a year in which Leicester City won the Premier League and the Chicago Cubs ended a 108-year World Series drought, a film about Emirati sporting brilliance against the odds couldn’t have been better timed.
The Lights of Rome documents the incredible feat of the UAE national team qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. It was the first, and so far only, time the team has reached the pinnacle of international football.
“It was a phenomenal achievement in such a short space of time,” says the film’s director, Ali Khaled. “All of the players were born before the formation of the union on December 2, 1971. They were born in different emirates, in different tribes, at a time when there was no federal government. Their youth was spent playing football on the streets.”
Despite these humble origins, the players went on to play on the same stage as footballing greats such as Italy’s Paolo Maldini, English striker Gary Lineker and Argentina legend Diego Maradona. But then reality struck.
The team was eliminated from a group of death that featured Colombia, Yugoslavia and eventual champions West Germany. “But the players did not disgrace themselves and the goals they scored went down in history,” says Khaled.
Those goals included Khalid Ismail’s fine finish against West Germany. But like any great underdog story, The Lights of Rome goes beyond its subject matter. It takes place amid a wider context of history and a rapidly-developing country. “I think the best stories transcend sport. A lot of people’s image of the Middle East is very generalised and stereotypical. Don’t get me wrong, the film is mostly about football, but within that it captures what the UAE has achieved in such a short space of time,” Khaled says.
Some 30 years on, many of the memories have faded, yet there’s one moment that resonates. It took place during the clash with South Korea that sent the UAE to Italy. “People remember the commentator, Adnan Hamad, crying and saying: ‘I can see the lights of Rome from here.’ And that’s what gave the film its name.”
The Lights of Rome is in cinemas across Dubai.