With the UAE in contention to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, Gruffudd Owen takes a look back at the country’s historic first appearance at the tournament
History has not been kind to the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Now regarded as a competition that favoured the defensive over the divine, pragmatism over panache, it offered football fans by way of entertainment an average of just 2.21 goals per game, and a wet squib of a final which saw more red cards being handed out than balls hitting the back of the net.
For the UAE, however, Italia ’90 is looked back on with great fondness. The tournament remains the first and only time that the country has qualified for a World Cup, and though Al-Abyad failed to win a match at their maiden appearance, it was nevertheless a proud achievement for a fledgling footballing nation.
To understand how a team comprised of amateurs succeeded in making it to one of the world’s greatest sporting events, one must begin by looking back to a pivotal year in the history of Emirati football.
Despite having only been in existence for half a decade, the United Arab Emirates Football Association (UAEFA) caught the attention of the football world in 1977 with the appointment of Don Revie as the head coach of the national team.
The famed Revie – a two-time league winner with Leeds United who had just ended a stint in charge of England – immediately set about introducing tactical innovation to the Gulf, and oversaw a marked improvement in the country’s football facilities.
By the time the Yorkshireman left the role in 1980, the UAE’s image in world football had been burnished. First, Carlos Alberto Parreira was named head coach in 1985, having taken Kuwait to its first World Cup in 1982.
After the Brazilian quit the job to manage Saudi Arabia in 1988, his successor and compatriot Mário Zagallo – twice a World Cup winner as a player and once as Brazil coach in 1970 – would go on to mastermind the UAE’s historic qualification.
The first qualifying round saw the UAE top a group containing Kuwait, Pakistan and South Yemen (who withdrew without playing a game). Zagallo’s men then entered the six-team final round aiming to seal one of the two qualification berths.
And the manner in which the country eventually progressed to the finals in Italy is somewhat fitting given the tournament’s ‘high on defence, low on goals’ reputation.
With the fraternal centre-back pairing of Khalil and Mubarak Ghanim providing defensive solidity, the UAE took its attacking chances superbly, thanks mainly to the sharp shooting of Adnan Al Talyani – the country’s most-capped player and all-time leading goalscorer.
A final tally of five points from just four goals scored and three conceded was enough to secure passage to a first-ever World Cup.
But it would not be Zagallo who would lead Al-Abyad to their debut finals appearance. The Brazilian unexpectedly stepped down as coach prior to the tournament, leaving the UAEFA to turn back to Parreira, who was given the task of preparing for a tricky group containing Colombia, Yugoslavia and eventual champions West Germany.
And while the UAE would go on to lose every game in its group, the exploits of the class of 1990 are still celebrated to this day – and can serve as inspiration for the current generation in their quest for qualification to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.