Some of the greatest names in Asian football have given young footballers living in the UAE a thrill by hosting a special skills clinic in Dubai to help celebrate the final draw of the AFC 2019 Asian Cup.
Children from all communities were united by football fever. But it was those belonging to the Indian, Chinese and Thai communities who enjoyed a special surprise as they came face to face with their own national heroes who dropped in for the unique event hosted by the tournament’s Local Organising Committee.
The occasion perfectly embodied the spirit of the competition and brought to life the tournament theme of ‘Bringing Asia Together’.
The event saw current captain of India, Sunil Chhetri, China’s former national great Sun Jihai and Thai hero Pipat Thonkanya join forces to showcase their talents to the young fans.
The children got to go beyond watching or securing autographs as they took part in an 2019 Asian Cup Crossbar challenge and skills demo before posing for photographs beneath the iconic Burj Khalifa.
His Excellency Aref Hamed Al Awani, tournament director, said: “Already young dreams are coming true and the next generation inspired. That’s our mission and we hope the impact goes beyond football. We want to excite and embrace each community living in the UAE and unite them through this beautiful game.
“We are blessed to have such a diverse nation but this tournament has the power to connect us all. You just have to look at the smiles on faces and feel the energy created by bringing people together through football to know this tournament is going to be very special.
“For these children their countdown to January 5 has already started and we hope that excitement will spread across the country.”
Chhetri, added: “This tournament is massive. Yes, it’s good for everyone in Asia to have the best 24 countries playing each other, but especially for India. The game is really growing and just qualifying for big tournaments like this means everything.
“It could also feel like a ‘home’ tournament if the Indian community in the UAE come out in numbers and support us. But any fan who loves the game can support India! We promise to put on a show.”
An expanded tournament format for 2019 will see the best 24 national teams from Asia participate at the Asian Cup, making it the largest edition staged and biggest sporting event hosted in the UAE.
A total of 51 matches will be played between January 5 and February 1, 2019, in eight stadiums located in three cities across the Emirates. The final draw took place on Friday with each group offering some tremendous ties.
China and former Manchester City midfielder Jihai added: “Football really is the number one sport in the world. It connects people and countries like no other. Just look at how it’s brought these children together and helped create new friendships.
“Recently China has invested a lot into football and we are improving. Perhaps in the future we can win a championship like the Asian Cup, but we need our fans to support us.
“Anyone who loves football in China should come to the UAE. The fans are part of our squad. We need their fighting spirit and support to help our performances.”
Thonkanya added: “For the first time young children in Thailand want to grow up and become professional footballers. That is very exciting. So as a team we need to play on the biggest stage in Asian football, to inspire more to follow in our footsteps.”
For the latest 2019 Asian Cup news and information go to www.the-afc.com
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.”