Fujairah’s quest to earn a return to the Arabian Gulf League has more than one World Cup winner behind it.
Standing beside inimitable Argentina icon Diego Maradona is assistant Luis Islas. The 52-year-old had no hesitation to follow El Pibe de Oro – The Golden Boy – when he shocked the sport last May by ending a five-year spell away from the dugout in the UAE’s First Division League.
Fast forward 10 months and the undefeated Wolves are locked on 40 points in a head-to-head battle with Ittihad Kalba for the second automatic promotion spot. It is a calling Islas takes just as seriously as their conquest of World Cup 1986 together, or when the 30-times-capped goalkeeper started all four games at the 1994 edition.
But his ambitions don’t start and end with Maradona.
This is the first time the duo have come together in their post-playing careers. The No2 has been a No1 since 2006 at clubs such as Bolivia’s Aurora (twice), plus Almagro, Central Norte, Racing de Cordoba, Atletico Colegiales and Deportivo Espanol in his homeland.
There is gratitude for what Fujairah have offered both Islas and his family. Although, a desire to be entrenador – head coach – burns bright in this new country embraced by them all.
“Working with Diego is a pleasure,” he tells Sport360°. “But we know this is football and there is only a few weeks left until the contract is over.
“This time, I have the capacity and ability to work alone. I feel confident I’d do a great job. In the UAE, football is about looking for results – every week you have to win. I like that challenge.
“I am happy in Fujairah and I thank them for the opportunity. My family is also happy, too. If it is not at Fujairah, I am interested in all the other teams.”
The bond between the pair was forged on the baking training pitches of Mexico. More than 30 years ago, a promising shot stopper only just out of his teens got taken under the wing of the globe’s greatest footballer.
“As a player at World Cup 1986, when we won it, Diego used to finish the training and every day we would stay together and practice free-kicks,” Islas reveals.
“Diego is five-years older than me. I was only 20 and Diego was 25. As a player, I conceded very few free-kicks. This is because as a player, I trained with Diego.
“I have known him for more than 30 years. I played two World Cups with Diego and we are always in touch. I was coaching in Argentina and my contract was over. When I received the phone call, I had no doubts and said ‘yes’.
“We have many games together, been at World Cups but now we give everything to get the objective at Fujairah – to gain promotion to the Arabian Gulf League.”
It is important to detach Islas from his lionised colleague.
Further sources of inspiration as a head coach range from one of Mexico’s greatest trophy hoarders to a pair of World Cup winners, plus his privileged viewpoint.
Islas says: “When I was a football player, I was very lucky to work with great coaches who also went to the national team. Enrique Meza coached Mexico and Toluca. I was coached by Cesar Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo, champions of the World Cup.
“I also played for 27 years. Every game of my life as a goalkeeper I always had the best view.”
In the UAE’s second tier, Bani Yas are already guaranteed an instant comeback to the AGL.
The remaining sides are likely scrapping for one automatic berth and two play-off spots, ahead of official confirmation of the competition’s return to 14 sides for 2018/19.
The small matter looms of Thursday’s tie with AGL champions-elect Al Ain in the President’s Cup quarter-finals.
Islas has embraced the high-profile contest at Shabab Al Ahli Dubai’s stadium Al Aweer. But just like his own personal coaching ambitions, focus is not straying from the main mission – getting Fujairah back to the big time for the first time since 2015/16.
He says: “The responsibility of the game against Al Ain is big. The team will give 100 per cent. We go to win and we want to make the next step. But we have two more very important games in the league, as well.”
Arabian Gulf League outcast and UAE London 2012 Olympics centre-back Ali Al Ameri has surprisingly found a new home in the 10th tier of English football at Blyth AFC.
Al Ameri, 29, had not featured in any of Bani Yas’ games this term after their relegation to First Division League in 2016/17. He last featured in March 2017’s 6-2 thrashing by Al Wahda in the top flight.
The ex-Al Jazira and Al Nasr player officially completed a six-month deal without salary on March 31 after spending several weeks training at the side from the north east of England, who compete in EBAC Northern League Division Two.
“His pedigree is second-to-none, if you look at his career and where he’s been,” said Blyth joint-manager Ian Skinner.
“It was a bit of a chance signing, he’s a friend of somebody I know. Ali has been good in training and we went through the official channels after he had his contract cancelled with his team.”
Wahda and UAE centre-back Hamdan Al Kamali made eight appearances for Lyon’s reserves when on loan for the second half of 2011/12. Brother Hamid Al Kamali became the first Emirati to compete in the UEFA Champions League’s preliminary stages during a temporary stint at Malta’s Valletta in 2014/15.
UAE centre midfielder Amer Abdulrahman had a trial at Blackburn in 2013 and Al Ain superstar Omar Abdulrahman went through the same process at Manchester City after the 2012 Games.
Al Nasr’s startling resurgence since January’s decision to rehire Ivan Jovanovic will face a stern test on Friday night when they travel to neighbours Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club for the Arabian Gulf League’s resumption after the international break.
The Blue Wave have won all six top-flight matches under the care of the Serbian – who claimed three major trophies from June 2013-October 2016 – to gate-crash the top three and potential qualification to the 2019 AFC Champions League. With only a trio of fixtures left and sinking rivals Al Wasl without a win in five top-flight fixtures, a huge advantage could be gained with victory at Rashid Stadium.
But their next opponents have won their last two matches as ex-UAE tactician Mahdi Ali begins to assert some consistency into a tumultuous inaugural campaign and should welcome back prolific Senegalese centre forward Makhete Diop after injury.
“I respect Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club,” said Jovanovic. “Always, the derby against them is very strong and exciting.
“Our team is always looking for a win and we will not stop until the final whistle. Teams with consecutive victories are the most affected by breaks in the league.”
Meanwhile, champions-elect Al Ain are immediately thrust back into action after their continental exploits when they welcome Dibba Al Fujairah.
A pair of first-half penalties from Sweden No9 Marcus Berg on Monday earned an invaluable 2-1 victory to keep hopes of progression into the 2018 ACL’s knockouts alive. They will now look to protect a four-point domestic advantage against a Dibba side who are virtually assured of safety.
This is not the case for Hatta and Al Dhafra, with bottom set to host third bottom at Hamdan bin Rashid Stadium.