Henk ten Cate delivered a loud and impassioned speech where he urged his players to “write their names” into the annals of Al Jazira’s history by delivering them a maiden AFC Champions League quarter-final berth.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi are into the round of 16 of the competition for the first time in four years and face Iran’s Persepolis – beaten in the semi-finals a year ago by Saudi Arabia’s losing finalists Al Hilal – in the first leg on Monday.
Ten Cate’s men ended a brief one-year exile by competing in the continental tournament for the last two years, but two meagre group stage exits were mustered – they were statistically the 31st worst performing team of 32 both years.
But now they stand on the brink of breaking a club record – they have not qualified for the last eight of the competition in their 44-year history.
And after a poor defence of their Arabian Gulf League crown won 12 months ago, Jazira finished seventh this term, in the bottom half of the table, with a 25-point chasm between them and champions Al Ain, Ten Cate has issued a rallying cry to his troops.
“It’s all or nothing tomorrow. It’s as easy as that,” said the dynamic Dutch coach in an animated press conference ahead of the clash at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
“Everybody has to be aware of this. It’s not a kindergarten or a playground. This is the last 16 of the Champions League and this club can reach the quarter-finals for the first time in more than 40 years of their history. The very first time.
“I am a foreigner. I will leave this country and go back to my own country and live my life. The local players will stay here and their name will be written in the history of this club. If you do something good, this will be remembered by everybody, this is what they have to fight for. Not me.
“I will fight even though I’m not from here. Because this is my job, and I will be aggressive, but I am not playing. It is them who is playing and they have to write their name in the history of this club forever. This is what they can do.”
The words seemed to have an immediate effect on Jazira captain and goalkeeper Ali Khaseif, who was in attendance alongside Ten Cate.
He described the fighting spirit within this Jazira squad, one that has this season been forced to perform despite two of their foreign signings – Sardor Rashidov and Lassana Diarra – flopping, while Ten Cate has largely put his trust in youth during his two-and-a-half year reign.
“The good thing about our team is we fight. We are focused on the match and we will fight for it,” said the 30-year-old stopper.
“We are playing in our home. I don’t need to invite the UAE fans because I’m sure they’re going to be there to support us. We need them for the 90 minutes. Hopefully the players and fans will be ready.”
Persepolis coach Branko Ivankovic will have insider knowledge of his opponents, having managed capital rivals Al Wahda for a season in 2012/13.
The Croatian is fully aware the deposed AGL champions have not had a good season domestically, but he knows they have been rejuvenated in Asia.
“We know Al Jazira very well and we know their quality,” said the former Iran coach.
“Maybe they didn’t play so well this season but they played much better in the Champions League and much better than last season. Jazira want to do something in this stage to save their season, which was not so good like last season.”
And having progressed to the semi-finals in 2017, the 64-year-old is keen to bolster the dominant Persian Gulf Pro League holders’ Asian credentials.
“We are very proud to be playing in the second stage of the Champions League,” he added.
“Both teams have ambitions to qualify for the quarter-final. We want to continue our good results in the Champions League.
“We come here with lots of optimism. We are ready and have big ambition. It’s only the first half but tomorrow we want to start with a good result.”
Iran are the continent’s highest-ranked team heading into the tournament, as well as this summer’s World Cup, and are three-time winners of the Asia Cup. Yet Team Melli have not tasted victory in more than 40 years.
They lifted the trophy an unprecedented three times in a row from 1968 to 1976 but haven’t done so since – their best efforts in the last 42 years four third-place finishes in 1980, 1988, 1996 and 2004.
Daei, 49, is not only Team Melli’s record goalscorer, netting an impressive 109 times in 149 appearances. He is international football’s all-time top scorer – with Hungary hero Ferenc Puskas second highest, but a huge 25 behind Daei on 84.
And he is keen for his country to assert their dominance as Asia’s No1 by winning a record-equaling fourth Asia Cup.
“This is our dream to shine again in the Asian Cup,” Daei, the former Bayern Munich striker who also had a spell with Al Shabab in the UAE, said at the 2019 Asian Cup draw in Dubai on Friday.
“We have a very good chance, it doesn’t matter what group it would be. We can qualify from the group stage whatever group we’re in.”
Iran, managed by former Real Madrid and Portugal tactician Carlos Queiroz were drawn in Group D at the ceremony, held at the Armani Hotel in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, alongside 2007 champions Iraq, Vietnam, who qualified for the first time as a unified nation, and debutants Yemen.
That 1996 podium place for Iran came the last and only previous time the tournament was held in the Emirates, with Iran exiting at the semi-final stage to eventual champions Saudi Arabia – who beat host nation the UAE 4-2 in a penalty shootout.
And Daei says it is difficult to compare his era to this current crop, who are ranked 36th in FIFA’s world rankings.
“It’s not easy to compare. We were really unlucky in 1996,” said Daei.
He’s not wrong. Iran led the tournament in goals scored, with 14, the then 27-year-old bagging eight of them.
“We lost to Saudi Arabia in a penalty shootout, otherwise we deserved to be champions. We were better than any other team in the tournament.”
With Iran just a short flight away from the UAE and a large Iranian expat population calling the Emirates home, Daei hopes good support here will help Team Melli’s chances of success.
“Definitely it will have a big impact,” he added. “It will be a major driver and can bring a lot of passion and emotion to the atmosphere of the stadiums during the competition, to support the team.”
Before the Asian Cup, however, there is the small matter of this summer’s World Cup in Russia of course. Iran have been placed in the proverbial ‘Group of Death’ alongside European giants Spain and Portugal, as well as Morocco.
And despite the odds being stacked against them, Daei is optimistic.
“We have been drawn in the most difficult World Cup group. But anything can happen in football,” said the man who also briefly coached his country from 2008-09.
“The team has been working very well so far and we are hoping they can deliver some good results in the World Cup.
“The Asian Cup is eight or nine months away and the World Cup will be a preparation and part of the build-up to the Asian Cup.”
Phil Younghusband says the Philippines will enjoy the experience of competing at their first-ever Asian Cup next year – but the former Chelsea protege is adamant his side won’t be coming here simply to make up the numbers in the UAE.
The Azkals (Street Dogs) will be one of three debutants at next year’s tournament – alongside Yemen and Kyrgyzstan.
And even though Younghusband was delighted to be rubbing shoulders with football royalty like Italy icon Marcello Lippi and the highest goalscorer in international football history, Iran’s Ali Daei, at the tournament draw in Dubai on Friday, the 30-year-old striker insists it will be down to business once the tournament gets under way on January 5, 2019.
“We’re here for the experience but not just that. We want to be part of the tournament, make our mark and show Asia that the Philippines has a football team,” said Younghusband, who is both his nation’s record caps holder and scorer, with an impressive 50 goals in 97 appearances.
“Just being in this environment and being among people like Marcello Lippi (China coach), Ali Daei, that sort of company. It’s a wonderful experience and it’s something we hope to do more of in the future.
“Living in the Philippines with the lack of facilities and often lack of support, just seeing this makes you realise where the Philippines can grow to. It’s great to be here and hopefully we’ll be here a lot more often.”
#AsianCup2019 FINAL GROUPS— The Philippine Football Federation (@philfootball) 4 May 2018
A 🇦🇪 🇹🇭 🇮🇳 🇧🇭
B 🇦🇺 🇸🇾 🇵🇸 🇯🇴
C 🇰🇷 🇨🇳 🇰🇬 🇵🇭
D 🇮🇷 🇮🇶 🇻🇳 🇾🇪
E 🇸🇦 🇶🇦 🇱🇧 🇰🇵
F 🇯🇵 🇺🇿 🇴🇲🇹🇲
The Azkals, still on a high after an historic first qualification to the Asian Cup, are yet to announce whether head coach Thomas Dooley, the former United States international, will renew his contract.
He surely will return though to lead the country in the UAE. They are in a tough Group C, alongside China and two-time winners South Korea, as well as Kyrgyzstan.
But star man Younghusband is buoyed by the fact four third-placed teams from the six groups will qualify for the knockout rounds in a reformatted competition that will see a record 24 teams take part.
“Once we qualified we said we’re not just here to make up the numbers, we’re here to compete,” said the Davao Aguilas frontman.
“With the format we can qualify as one of the best third-placed sides which gives us a great chance.”
And he’s also banking on the powerhouses of Asian football underestimating his side.
“I hope so,” he added. “We’ve got a tough group but we’ve had two decent results recently (beat Tajikistan 2-1 and Fiji 3-2).
“We beat Kyrgyzstan (twice in 2016) and lost badly to China (8-1 in June 2017) but at least we’re playing against teams we’ve played before and know what to expect.
“With South Korea it’s a bit different but we’re excited for the test and it’s up to us to ensure we’re making a name for ourselves.”
One thing the Philippines can count on is the fervent support of a mammoth expat community, with around 750,000 Filipinos living in the UAE.
Younghusband, who was born in Surrey to an English father and Filipina mother, joined Chelsea’s academy aged nine and turned professional with the Stamford Bridge club in 2005 – spending three further years in West London.
It was in 2005 when his eligibility for the Philippines was discovered, with the Philippine Football Federation reportedly alerted to Younghusband by an anonymous gamer who allegedly found out about his lineage via popular computer game Football Manager.
He has since gone on to become a national hero and hopes his fellow countrymen and women will turn out in force to cheer on their team next year.
“That many? Wow,” said Younghusband when told of the Filipino population in the Emirates.
“Hopefully 10 per cent of them show up. You speak to a lot of people here and you hear they’re happy the Philippines qualified as there’s a lot of them here in the UAE who can come and support.
“We hope they do come and we have plans to go out into the communities and visit schools, rally the troops and make sure every game feels like a home game.
“I think that’s important because we’ll be going into the game at a handicap but hopefully our fans can make it more of a leveler.”
Asked if the number of Filipinos could mean the UAE becoming a future destination for Younghusband to play and live, he added: “Not right now. But who knows. If a good offer comes, no-one knows what the future is.”