Sebastian Tagliabue admits he still dreams of representing the UAE at national team level after original hopes faded earlier this year.
Al Wahda striker Tagliabue refers to the Abu Dhabi club as “his second home in football” and he had been earmarked as a potential pick for the Whites’ Asian Cup squad in January, having become eligible for naturalisation last summer.
The 34-year-old Argentine was rumoured to be under consideration for a spot in then UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni’s squad for the tournament – held in the Emirates – along with Al Wasl’s Brazilian duo Fabio De Lima and Caio Canedo (now of Al Ain).
The trio had become available under FIFA rules, with Tagliabue a constant resident since he was purchased from Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab Riyadh in June 2013.
The Buenos Aires native overtook Asamoah Gyan as the Arabian Gulf League’s all-time top-scoring foreign player last year and was left upset at not being able to earn a UAE call-up – although he holds out hope it is still possible as he goes into his seventh AGL season.
“Yes, of course,” he told Sport360 when asked if he would accept an invitation were he to be approached by the UAE Football Association again.
“How do I say no to the national team of this country? They’ve given me everything. My youngest son is eight-years-old and 90 per cent of his life he has lived here.
“Of course if, I can help now or in six months I have the opportunity in my football career. I will take it and try to help the country.”
The last thing Tagliabue was told was, “everything is ready” for him to earn a cap for his adopted nation, but after he’d completed a medical and filled in all the relevant paperwork, he never heard another word from anyone in authority, which he said was the most disappointing aspect.
“The last words I knew was that ‘everything is ready, we have all the papers, we will give them to the president’,” said the man referred to affectionately by Clarets fans as ‘Tigali’.
“After that nobody called me again, the Asian Cup was gone and nobody spoke with me again. But believe me it was something I wanted to do.
“I don’t know what happened with the other players – Caio and De Lima – but what happened with me is they wanted to give me the passport to play the Asian Cup. It was especially for the Asian Cup.
“I don’t know what happened with this and the guy who spoke with me. I already did the blood test, the check-up, I signed some papers and what I knew [is that] they gave all the papers to the president of the country and after that I didn’t know anything.
“I think the president said ‘no’, I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t give (the papers), maybe something happened in the middle and they decided no, and the president didn’t say anything or the paper didn’t reach him.”
The UAE, chastised for playing dull, uninspiring football under former AC Milan coach Zaccheroni, ended up reaching the semi-finals of the tournament, where they lost to eventual champions Qatar.
Tagliabue added: “In the beginning I never expect that. For that I was not angry when I didn’t get it. My (reason for being) upset was, if you come to me and offer me something, come to me after and say ‘sorry, it’s not possible’ and I will say ‘thank you so much for thinking of me’. For even giving me the chance to dream of that.
“From the beginning I knew maybe 70/80 per cent it was not possible. Some people work like this, but I don’t accept that. I’m not like this. But it’s OK. It was an amazing time and a nice dream.”
Al Ain coach Ivan Leko has been encouraged by his side’s efforts and performances in pre-season so far, although the Croat knows he will not gain a complete perspective of his squad until every player is available.
The Boss drew 0-0 with Saudi Pro League side Al Fateh in Slovenia on Tuesday in what the former Club Brugge boss has described as a beneficial summer – even though it has been disrupted by playing only two games thus far as their second was abandoned due to cold weather.
Algerian winger Abderrahmane Meziane and Togo forward Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba made their first appearances for the club, but have only been with their new team-mates for a matter of days.
And Leko confirmed that the players must continue to work during this crucial period of preparation ahead of the new season.
“More training is needed to achieve the required level of togetherness,” said Leko, who replaced Juan Carols Garrido, the Spaniard struggling after the departure of Zoran Mamic midway through last season.
“The main objective of the friendly matches is to see how players apply for training in such confrontations and I have felt good returns from everyone.
“It is certain that the lack of international players joining the start of the preparation period, in addition to Laba and Meziane only joining a few days ago, is a factor that leads us to redouble our efforts. Because our actual training begins when the team is complete.
“And we will work together in a strong and serious way to achieve our goals in the new season.”
Veteran defender Ismail Ahmed, meanwhile, is similarly encouraged by what he has seen in camp and during the games so far.
“We came out with the desired gains from the friendly,” said the UAE international, who celebrated his 36th birthday at the beginning of July.
“The game was good and gave everyone a good boost, especially as the second friendly match was not completed due to weather conditions accompanied by cold weather. The encounter was both technical and physical.
“I would like to thank all my colleagues and the coach and I wish success to all of us in achieving the required gains during this important stage of preparation for the new season.
“I believe that the team’s performance indicators are positive so far and by the end of the pre-season period, I hope that the team reaches the required readiness for the new season ahead.”
Leko has a big task ahead of him as the Boss look to arrest the slide that set in last term, resulting in a fourth-placed finish in the Arabian Gulf League and a group stage exit from the AFC Champions League.
But the summer has been positive in terms of business – with prolific Brazilian forward Caio Canedo the standout acquisition from fellow UAE side Al Wasl.
Both Laba and Meziane were pursued by Egyptian titans Al Ahly, while midfielders Mohamed Jamal and Mohammed Helal have joined from of Al Jazira and Ajman respectively.
Al Ain defender Mohammed Fayez has hailed the early impact of new coach Ivan Leko, insisting the Coatian is already proving to be a “valuable asset” as the Boss look to bounce back from a disappointing 2018/19 campaign.
The Garden City side enjoyed a splendid first half of the campaign, marked by making the final of the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi in December – where they were beaten 4-1 by Spanish giants Real Madrid.
But their form fell away drastically after the Arabian Gulf League season resumed following a staggered campaign due to the Club World Cup and January’s Asian Cup. They fell out of title contention and eventually finished fourth – only Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club’s triumph in the President’s Cup final provided them with an AFC Champions League lifeline as they will now participate in the play-off rounds.
The Boss are currently in Europe on pre-season and defender Fayez has been impressed with the new man in charge.
“He has set up the team’s programme to boost further the strength of the Al Ain team to be able to clinch more titles,” said the 29-year-old full-back of the former Croatia international midfielder.
“He has great charisma and deals well with all players. You can tell that he has a clear imprint in enhancing all the players’ potentials, and this is what we have realised since day one.
“I can assure you that he is a valuable asset to the team and I do not doubt that, with him, we will be able to achieve the desired goals.
“I am highly confident that our loyal fans will never let us walk alone and hope together we will celebrate winning new titles.”