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The lights of Rome

1 June 2018

As the World Cup begins in Russia, Ali Khaled, editor of FourFourTwo Arabia and director of Anwar Roma, looks back on a UAE national team that defied all the odds to qualify for Italia 90, and the movie he helped create that tells its unforgettable story

The debate over the UAE’s finest sporting moment is not a particularly long one. One achievement stands out all on its own, 29 years after it took place on the football fields of Singapore. Yet for years it remained a rather forgotten story.

When the UAE began its campaign to qualify for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, not many people gave them a hope – including their own supporters. Even the players weren’t totally convinced, with few of legendary Brazilian coach Mario Zagalo’s squad believing it anything but a quixotic fantasy.

Much of that shredded hope was perhaps a legacy from events four years previously, when the UAE came heartbreakingly close to qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Leading Iraq 2-0 in the second match of a two-legged tie, they were seconds away from effectively progressing to the World Cup at the first time of asking. As an ecstatic television commentator fatefully called on Emirati fans to greet the heroes at Dubai airport the following day, Iraq grabbed an equaliser deep into injury time. The UAE players were on their knees, weeping, and Iraq progressed on the away goals rule.

Having come so close in 1985, the chances of the UAE getting another opportunity four years later – with a less fancied team and in a far more difficult format – were practically non-existent; in this game you rarely get second chances. But when they do come, they’re worth remembering, and so a decision to commit the story to film was taken by the chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Image Nation, Mohamed Al Mubarak. Specialists in documenting Emirati achievement, Image Nation began work on the movie in 2014. But the seeds of this story were sewn far earlier.

A forgotten story

The embryonic stages of what eventually became Anwar Roma first took place in the weeks leading up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Looking to write a feature on the 20th anniversary of the UAE’s qualification to Italia 90, I was struck by how little documentation, in Arabic or English, in print or on film, there was of what I and many others believe to be the nation’s finest footballing achievement.

A starting point was to talk to fans. One by one, distant memories were dusted off. Not everyone recalled the qualification results correctly, though flashbacks to the action in Italy was easier to prompt. A pleasantly surprising number remembered the goose-bump inducing commentary that greeted qualification and lent the documentary its title. And many more could reel off the names of what would fondly become known as the Golden Generation, or the 1990 Generation.

Adnan Talyani, the UAE’s finest player; Muhsin Musabah, the team’s athletic goalkeeper; Khalid Ismail and Ali Thani, who would go on to score the UAE goals in Italy; veteran back-up goalkeeper Abdulqadir Hassan; young defender Abdulrahman Al Haddad; Naser Khamees and older brother and team veteran Fahad Khamees.

The UAE owes a huge debt to those names. And yet as recently as six years ago, their astonishing achievement had been all but forgotten. Sure, you could find a few YouTube clips here, the odd Arabic language article there; but there was no serious documentation of a truly historical and cultural moment, one that helped raise the profile of the UAE around the world.

And so Anwar Roma, the documentary, was born. Literally “The Lights of Rome”, from the memorable line uttered by commentator Adnan Hamad as it dawned on him that the UAE had pulled off the miracle of World Cup qualification. “I can see the lights of Rome now,” he wept on a glorious night in Singapore.

Humble beginnings

It’s difficult to overestimate just how implausible the UAE’s march to the World Cup really was. Every member of the squad that flew out to the qualifying match in Singapore in 1989 had been born before the seven emirates were unified on December 2, 1971. All of them recall modest upbringings brightened by their love of football. As Naser Khamees endearingly remembers, it was a case of “lifting your kandoora, and playing barefoot on the sand”. The 22 children that would grow up to make the squad that played in Italy were scattered across a land that barely resembled the one in 1990, never mind in 2018.

Yet, under one flag and following the ingenious path plotted for the nation by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, football – already practiced by a disparate group of clubs prior to unification – proliferated. The UAE football association was established at the end of 1971 and became one of the fledgling country’s first institutions to join an international association when it became an official member of FIFA just months later. The UAE’s very first international match came at the second Gulf Cup of Nations in Saudi Arabia on March 17, 1972, a 1-0 win over Qatar.

The Football League was established in time for the 1973-74 season, and the majority of the squad that went to the 1990 World Cup was made up of players from the two leading clubs of the time, Al Wasl and Sharjah Football Club.

Football, however, remained a distinctly amateur undertaking. Not one of the players was a professional footballer, and all had to juggle their playing career with a regular job or education. The likes of Ali Thani and Abdulrahman Al Haddad took time off from university to take part in the World Cup qualifiers. Made up of regular working men, the UAE squad that flew out to Singapore had far more on their mind than just football, but in time that would change.

Constructing Anwar Roma

Seeking out the players over two decades later was harder than anticipated. After the glory of qualification to – and taking part in – Italia 90, the players returned to a life less glamorous in the domestic league. The Italian adventure was, by some distance, the highpoint of their careers – although several of the Golden Generation, including Al Talyani, managed to reach the 1996 AFC Asian Cup final in Abu Dhabi, only to miss out on a first trophy by losing on penalties to a wonderful Saudi Arabian team.

As, one by one, they retired from football, the players then returned to the relative obscurity of their regular full-time jobs. At first many of them, very humbly, declined the invitation to be part of the documentary. These are modest players who had represented their country proudly and were not seeking personal attention. Yet they had hugely underestimated the esteem and love they still elicited. It was clear that though World Cup qualification remained an increasingly distant memory, it still lived on in the collective consciousness of the Emirati public.

As it turned out, those glorious but now hazy footballing days just needed a bit of prompting. Slowly, as the players embraced the project, a fuller picture of what took place back in October 1989 emerged.

Mission Impossible

South Korea, Saudi Arabia, China, Qatar and North Korea. These were the teams standing in the way of the UAE and the World Cup as they flew out to Singapore for the AFC final round of qualification from Asia. At the time, all five opponents were considered not just better prepared, but better in general, than Zagalo’s men.

To say that the Emirati campaign was in a somewhat chaotic state would be kind. For one, it lacked the leadership of the man who had transformed UAE football over the previous decade. Just weeks before the qualifiers were scheduled to kick off in Singapore, Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, beloved UAE Football Association president and, as Al Haddad put it, “godfather to the players”, left his post. Without his guidance, the UAE Football Association was in turmoil. There were doubts that the UAE would even fulfill their fixture commitments, with commentator Hamad recalling in the film that the team only flew out to avoid being sanctioned by FIFA.

To add to the farcical nature of the start of the campaign, two of the players almost missed the flight to Singapore, believing it had already departed. They were found, in the nick of time, having lunch at a cafeteria near the old Abu Dhabi airport.

The local media barely bothered discussing the country’s chances. Newspapers buried snippets of the team’s news on their sports pages, and there was no Emirati commentary team for the first match against North Korea, which ended in an uninspiring 0-0 draw.

They would change their tune quickly after what could be the UAE’s greatest ever result, against China, five days later.

The Miracle In Singapore

A quarter of century on from their finest achievement, the players’ memories of that period remain remarkably sharp. The understated start, the punishing rain and muddy conditions; and the gradual realisation by a group of players with nothing to lose that something magical was taking place.

Tracking down some of the old footage proved unsurprisingly difficult. Indeed, it was this exact scarcity of archival material that prompted the desire to make Anwar Roma in the first place. But the months spent digging up old photos and video footage was worth the effort. As the players watched clips from the matches in Singapore, the emotion was there for all to see, especially when reliving that match against China on October 17, 1989.

Losing by a solitary goal as full time approached, the UAE’s World Cup campaign was seconds from effectively ending. What happened next changed the course of UAE football history. It was an ending so dramatic that many fans wrongly remember it as the moment the UAE qualified to the World Cup. In fact, confirmation of progress and Hamad’s memorable commentary would come three matches and eleven days later, against South Korea.

But those dying moments against China are the beating heart of Anwar Roma. It was when Zagalo’s team was reborn, when the public’s interest in the campaign was reawakened and, above all else, when UAE football history’s two most priceless points paved the way for eventual qualification to the World Cup.

Mission Impossible, Part Two

By the time the World Cup came around in June 1990, Zagalo had been replaced by his predecessor, Carlos Alberto Parreira, who had presided over the team between 1984-1988, including that harrowing experience against Iraq. His task at the World Cup was impossible and so, paradoxically, it was impossible for him to fail.

The UAE were placed in a brutally difficult group, which boasted a strong Colombia, a supremely gifted Yugoslavia and the team that would eventually win the competition outright, West Germany.

Not surprisingly the UAE lost all three group matches, though the team made many friends with their attitude, and Khalid Ismail and Ali Thani would go down in history as the UAE’s only World Cup goal scorers, respectively against West Germany and Yugoslavia. But in many ways, the results hardly mattered.

“In those days if you qualified for the World Cup, you’d already won!” Parreira explains. And he’s right. To simply be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Diego Maradona, Lothar Matthäus and Marco van Basten at the World Cup was a crowning achievement for a group of players that could barely have conceived of such a notion growing up as children in 1970s UAE. They had won their own World Cup that day back in October 1989. The day Adnan Hamad could see the lights of Rome all the way from Singapore.