How Al Ain Pulled Off One Of Football's Greatest Ever Shocks
They turned up to watch a procession. They ended up witnessing one of the greatest nights in UAE football history.
On Tuesday night, in front of disbelieving crowd at their home of Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, Emirati champions Al Ain pulled off a scarcely believable win to reach the final of the FIFA Club World Cup.
At the end of their penalty shootout win over River Plate of Argentina, many fans only wept with joys before turning the streets of the Garden City into one big party.
But it’s wasn’t supposed to end like that.
There is one perceived truism about the FIFA Club World Cup, a competition currently taking place in the Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.
That is, the club champions of Asia (AFC), Africa (CAF), North America (COCACAF), Oceana (OFC), along with the host nation’s domestic champions, fight it off amongst themselves for the honour of a place in the semi-finals. Or, more accurately, if history is to go by, the honour of being beaten in the semi-final. For that is the stage when the true giants of world football ¬- the UEFA Champions League winners and CONMEBOL’s Copa Libertadores champions– make their belated entrance.
Europe and South America’s finest then proceed to the final. That’s how it’s almost always been, and that’s what everyone comes to see.
At the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup UAE, the favourites Real Madrid of Spain and River would, surely, march on to the final on December 22.
But someone forgot to tell Al Ain, the least fancied team in the competition.
Having already dispatched Team Wellington of New Zealand and Esperance of Tunisia, the host club reached the semi-final against Argentina’s River Plate.
Enjoy your day out boys, and thanks for taking part.
Triumphalism, which some of River Plate’s wonderfully noisy and colourful supporters seemed to be wallowing in, has a habit of coming before a big fall.
Before kick-off, the Emirati fans had unfurled a gigantic banner with the words “Mission Impossible”, except the “im” was crossed out from the second word. But did they truly believe a miracle, because that’s what was needed, was possible?
A goal on two minutes by AL Ain’s Swedish international Marcus Berg set the scene for a memorable night, and sent the home crowds wild. But by half time, order had been restored, River taking a 2-1 lead with two-quick fire goals from Rafael Santos Borre.
The chanting from the Argentine fans, whose banners were peppered all around the stadium, was incessant, inspiring the Al Ain supporters to raise their game. The result was one of the most raucous atmospheres football ground in these parts had ever seen.
When the brilliant Brazilian Caio equalised on 51 minutes, Al Ain’s fans and players started to believe the impossible was on, that this could really be their day. It would prove a long, emotionally draining night.
As the air temperature dropped, the heat rose in the stands. When the referee blew his whistle after two periods of extra time, some Al Ain players, having produced a Herculean effort over 120 minutes, could barely walk from exhaustion. But there was one last task to complete, the penalty shootout. History waited on the other side.
The first nine penalties were scored before Al Ain’s keeper Khalid Essa, brilliant throughout, whipped the fans into a frenzy as he waited to face the 10th.
One last kick by Enzo Perez, and what seemed like a split-second of utter silence, later, and Al Ain had pulled off the greatest shock in Club World Cup history, and a night Emirati football will cherish for years.
Now they await the winner of Real Madrid and Kashima Antlers of Japan (yes, we know you’re all thinking Madrid!) in Saturdays final at what will be a heaving Zayed Sports City stadium.
Can they pull off one of the greatest football miracles ever? Well, you could ask River Plate’s fans.