The UAE Could Be The Best Place In The World For Football Right Now

By Ali Khaled
09 December 2018
FIFA Club World Cup, AFC Asian Cup, UAE
With two major international competitions kicking off across the Emirates over the next month, we look at five occasions the eyes of the Middle East and the world turned to the UAE

It's arguably the biggest ever month in UAE football history.

On Wednesday, December 12, the 2018 FIFA Club World Cup will kick off in Abu Dhabi, with holders and European champions Real Madrid returning to defend the title they won last year. Then, on January 5, the 2019 AFC Asian Cup will welcome 24 teams from across the continent for waht will be the biggest edition of the competition yet.

Here we look at five previous times the UAE held major football tournaments, and some of the stars those tournaments produced.

1982 Gulf Cup

Just over a decade after the establishment of the country, the UAE held its first ever football tournament, the sixth Gulf Cup of Nations.

March 19, 1982 saw the hosts take on Qatar in the opening match at Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi, and in many ways it was the moment Emirati football took the first tentative steps on a journey that seven years later would see them miraculously qualify to the World Cup finals.

The UAE, managed by legendary Iranian coach Heshmat Mohajerani, went on to win the match by that solitary goal from Fahad Khamees and followed it up with another 1-0 win against neighbours Saudi at the same venue.

Hopes were raised of a first ever Gulf Cup trophy, but in the end the UAE had to contend with a commendable third place.

Zayed Sports City Stadium

Zayed Sports City Stadium, Abu Dhabi

1996 AFC Asian Cup

After the 1982 Gulf Cup, the 1996 AFC Asian Cup was the second major tournament to be held in the UAE.

Having reached the World Cup six years earlier, the UAE were looking to win their first ever international trophy, although many members of the Golden Generation that had taken part in Italia 90 were no longer in the squad.

Playing all their matches at Zayed Sports City stadium, the UAE, led by Croatian Tomislav Ivić, recorded 1-0 wins over Iraq in the quarter-final and Kuwait in the semi-final.

This inspired progression saw unprecedented scenes of celebrations across the seven emirates as players and supporters alike began to believe that their time had finally arrived.

It wasn’t to be. On December 21, 1996, a formidable Saudi overcame the UAE - cheered on by over 50,000 fans - on penalties at Zayed Sports City stadium to win their third Asian Cup.

2003 Fifa World Youth Championships

The UAE’s first ever FIFA competition ended up producing one of the country’s greatest ever talents.

This is a competition that is famed for producing future stars. The 1999 edition introduced Ronaldinho to the world and two years later saw the emergence of Javier Saviola of Argentina.

In 2003, the final in Abu Dhabi saw Brazil beat Spain, with one Andres Iniesta, 1-0 thanks to a goal by Manchester City’s Fernandinho. Still, it was the host nation’s gifted Ismail Matar who won the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player.


Matar is in good company. The next winner, in 2005, was a young Argentine by the name of Lionel Messi, and since then the award has also gone to Sergio Aguero and Paul Pogba.

2007 Gulf Cup

For the first time in years, hosts UAE entered a major tournament with genuine expectation rather than mere hope.

Their chances of winning the 2007 Gulf Cup would rest on two factors: the presence of the supremely gifted, and now maturing, Ismail Matar, and the passion of the home support.

The opening match of the tournament saw the UAE unexpectedly lose 2-1 to Oman, but from then on, things just got better and better for the hosts.

A 2-1 win over Yemen was followed by a dramatic 3-2 triumph over Kuwait, Matar scoring an injury time winner in front of a delirious crowd at Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium. It would not be his last sensational contribution to the UAE’s cause.

In the semi-final against Saudi, a team that only a year earlier had taken part at the World Cup in Germany, Matar scored another stoppage time winner to put the UAE only 90 minutes away from their first ever trophy.

On January 30, 2007, a capacity crowd at Zayed Sports City stadium, and the rest of the nation, expected. And there would be no denying the Emiratis this time, Matar, who else, settling the final against Oman with a carbon copy of his semi-final winner against Saudi.


The UAE, at long last, were Gulf Cup champions.

2009 Fifa Club World Cup

The first time that the UAE held club World Cup and it could not have produced a more iconic winner.

Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, considered one of the finest teams to grace the beautiful game, wrapped up a record-breaking year with a sixth trophy after beating Estudiantes of Argentina at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

The Catalan giants had to come from behind, Pedro equalising Mauro Boselli’s early goal in the last minute of normal time, before Lionel Messi, at the time establishing himself as the world’s best player, scored the winner five minutes into the second period of extra time.

A year later, the same stage saw Rafael Benitez’s Inter Milan win the trophy, but it is the 2009 tournament that has had more impact on world football.

The legend of Pep Guardiola, and modern-day Barcelona, had been born.