UAE magician Omar Abdulrahman has vowed to prove his innocence over the furore of his and fellow national team star Ali Mabkhout’s punishments in the wake of breaking curfew at the Gulf Cup at the start of the year.
Al Ain superstar ‘Amoory’ and lethal Al Jazira striker Mabkhout were found to have left the team hotel in Kuwait outside of permitted hours the night before the January 5 final against Oman.
The Whites subsequently lost 5-4 on penalties, with Abdulrahman missing a crucial penalty in the dying seconds of stoppage time at the end of 90 minutes before again fluffing his lines from 12 yards with the UAE’s fifth penalty, which he needed to score to send the shootout to sudden death.
The pair were issued four-game domestic bans following the tournament – a decision that resulted in a backlash against the UAE Football Association.
National team coach Alberto Zaccheroni added fuel to the fire when he later declined to select 2016 AFC Player of the Year Abdulrahman and 2015 Asian Cup top scorer Mabkhout for the King’s Cup in March.
But Abdulrahman insists the duo – along with Mabkhout’s Jazira team-mate Mohammed Fawzi, who escaped punishment as he was injured and not due to play in the final – only visited a barber shop.
The 26-year-old schemer categorically denied that they left the team hotel in Kuwait City and “went out late for fun”.
“All of us players in the national team, we give everything to this team and the jersey we wear, whether in the field or outside,” said Abdulrahman, speaking to Anas Bukhash as the first guest on his new YouTube talk show #ABtalks, earlier this month.
“There was talk about me, Ali Mabkhout and Mohammed Fawzi going out (to have fun) and the FA punished us. We did not go out to have fun.
“We only went to the barber shop for Ali Mabkhout and we came back. All of this can be checked on the hotel’s CCTV. The barber was outside the hotel.”
Abdulrahman and Mabkhout, 27 – the nation’s two shining superstars who were this week recalled by Zaccheroni for next month’s training camp in Austria – were found guilty of leaving the team’s hotel in Kuwait City without permission from 20:15-22:30.
But the brilliant Boss midfielder insisted they were back at the hotel before 22:30. “This is not the first national team camp we attend. This is usually never an issue,” he added.
“We went back at around 10:20-10:22 and we chilled, then slept. Next day we played the match and when we lost some people talked and claimed that all of us went out late for fun.
“Don’t think I stayed quiet. I raised a case against those individuals and I am suing them. With time and the progress of the case the people will know the actual truth and that we were treated unfairly.
“I don’t want to talk about this much more because I notice a stage where I will not forgive a person who is trying to destroy my reputation or any of the national team players that are innocent of accusations.
“You are free to express your opinion. You are free to speak about Omar. But in the end I will prove to everyone that I was right and that the person accusing me, stating that we were doing something wrong and not respecting the country, I will prove they were all false accusations.
“I was mentally tired because people were believing these accusations. If we’d won no-one would have said anything. When you lose they will hold you accountable for every little detail, even the way you dress.
“But when you win, no matter what you do, no-one will say anything. The fans have the right to speak up because we wanted to win the Gulf Cup. In the end it was a penalty and I could not score it.”
Abdulrahman also took umbrage at criticism that he had assigned himself as the fifth penalty taker in order to put himself in a position to shine as a potential UAE hero.
“People saying that Omar wants to steal the show, this was the thing I heard the most, that I’m selfish and only thought of myself,” added Abdulrahman.
“If I am really selfish and want to steal the show, I can do that anywhere, anytime. We did not play well in any match (at the Gulf Cup). None. We went there with no demands or expectations from anyone. We were asked only to follow the new coach’s instructions.
“When we reached the final they asked for the championship and that is their right. And as players we wished that too. It was not my day. We as players could have done more but it was not only us, it was everyone. The FA, coaches, players, fans.”
Abdulrahman is undoubtedly the shining light of UAE football and among the best players on the continent too. He has often been linked with moves away from the Garden City – having first caught the attention of the world with the UAE at the 2012 Olympics in London.
He was subsequently invited for a trial with Manchester City that August who offered him a four-year deal – which broke down over work permit issues.
But he so far has been content to stay with his boyhood club. And he confirmed he will never play for another UAE side.
“It’s not about taking me away from Saudi Arabia, but they saw talent in me,” said the Saudi Arabia-born Amoory, who signed for Al Ain in 2006 after the club offered him and his entire family citizenship.
“That’s how I reached Al Ain and I’ve been blessed since then. Al Ain was the only one. And there will never be any other club for me here in the UAE.”
Ticket sales for one of the most eagerly-anticipated spectacles in world football – the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 – will go live on Monday at 12:00 noon on the-afc.com.
After a record-setting group stage performance by Asian teams at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the eyes of the football world now turn towards the UAE from January 5-February 1, 2019.
The expanded competition, which is set to welcome an unprecedented 24 teams – eight more than the previous 2015 edition – will take place across eight world-class stadiums in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai and Sharjah, and promises to engage more fans than ever before in the biggest sporting event ever hosted in the region.
Asian Football Confederation (AFC) President Shaikh Salman Ebrahim Al Khalifa said: “The AFC ‘s vision and mission outlined our ambitions to provide world-class platforms for our teams, players and passionate fans.
“The launch of ticket sales is an important milestone and the UAE is the perfect host nation to unite the Asian football family. I am confident that the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 will provide the ultimate stage to showcase Asia’s remarkable talent and engage and excite more fans than ever before.
“In the LOC (Local Organising Committee, we have a trusted partner who share our ambitions of bringing Asia together and to deliver the most competitive and accessible Asian Cup to date.”
Ticket prices for the competition have been set to allow as many people as possible—from the millions of Asians already residing in the UAE to the two billion living within a four-hour flight—to come and experience the thrill of top-class, live international football.
Speaking at the launch of tickets for the Asian Cup, vice chairman of the LOC, HE Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi, said: “The UAE is honoured to be hosting the most-expansive, most-inclusive AFC Asian Cup in history.
“More teams promise more goals, more action and more drama, and we are confident that our long pedigree of hosting world-class sporting events has prepared us to offer an unsurpassed fan experience for football fans and first-timers alike.
“Moreover, the LOC promises to deliver not just the biggest tournament in the region’s history, but the best. And this will begin with the Asian communities already living in the UAE that are prepared to rally and support their national teams at this exciting, once-in-a-lifetime event.
“There is no better place to embody the tournament motto of ‘Bringing Asia Together’ than right here in the UAE.”
As part of the exciting build-up to ticket sales, a special launch event saw HE Aref Al Awani, tournament director, and children from across the UAE enjoy an opportunity to play at the iconic Zayed Sports City Stadium, where the opener and final of the Asian Cup will be staged.
The event demonstrated the unprecedented scale of the tournament as children held each other’s arm representing the cause of this edition, against a backdrop of a giant ticket, symbolising the sheer scale of the tournament that is coming to the Emirates.
Speaking on the launch of tickets for the Asian Cup, Al Awani said: “The UAE through high mission which represents peace, tolerance, happiness, and openness, welcomes all teams and all nationals of the Asian continent to attend and watch this big continental event, which brings 24 teams together for the first time.
“This great participation is a big focus for us as it reflects the potential of the UAE and its great capabilities in organising the biggest and most important global and continental sporting events.
“The announcement of the general ticket sale is a proof that the countdown has started, and the preparations are going on the right path.
“The organising committee continues its efforts and preparations in order to launch the event in the best possible way and the meeting of children from different cultures during the launch of ticket sales reflects the spirit of unity in the tournament.”
CAT3 CAT2 CAT1
GROUP STAGE Dh25 Dh50 Dh75
ROUND 16 Dh25 Dh50 Dh75
QUARTER-FINALS Dh50 Dh75 Dh150
SEMI-FINALS Dh50 Dh75 Dh150
FINAL Dh75 Dh150 Dh300
Croatia outshining their 1998 golden generation. Egypt making just a second-ever finals and first in almost 30 years. England casting years of shame and embarrassment aside with one of their most inexperienced and youngest teams. Hopeless Russia providing a nation with plenty of it for the future.
These were the best feel-good stories of this summer’s World Cup. The most epic tale, however, never quite got to be told.
Syria, torn apart by an intense civil war since 2011. Yet despite all the unrest and bloodshed, their national team were a whisker away from making a maiden World Cup this summer.
The Qasioun Eagles had their wings clipped by Australia in Asian qualifying, making a resplendent run to the latter stages before they lost 3-2 in the play-offs to the shaky-looking Socceroos, who nevertheless somehow won the on-field battle to earn a spot in Russia.
But the Eagles won’t remain flightless for long. Next January Syria will surely soar when they feature at the 2019 Asian Cup – where their heartbreaking yet heroic, and rather quite brilliant story, will finally be read by the masses.
It’s a story Syria boss Bernd Stange hopes is far from over either.
“It should be a great challenge but we cannot underestimate any team in qualification,” Stange, the experienced German coach, said.
Syria line-up in Group B in the UAE in January alongside reigning champions Australia, as well as Palestine, who featured for the first time Down Under in 2015. Jordan make up the quartet.
“Palestine are a good team, we are a good team, Australia are a good team and then maybe you believe Jordan is an underdog. But they aren’t. You have Palestine first up and you have to be ready for the Asian Cup. That’s why nobody is afraid but we respect all the teams. We will be ready on January 5.”
Led by the reigning Asian Player of the Year Omar Khrbin – already familiar with UAE audiences having risen to prominence in the Emirates with Al Dhafra during a 2016-17 spell – Stange is rightly confident.
“Honestly I believe Syria should make the next stage after the group,” said Stange, speaking in Dubai at the draw for the competition back in May.
“We go step by step. Circumstances are not easy for us, even in the preparation stage. We have to make the group stage and we should be strong enough. Players are strong enough and want to achieve something. We will see, if we make it past the group stage I think everything can happen.”
It takes a special and mentally strong person to want to take a job like Stange’s. The 70-year-old had coached in comfort for the most part of his career, taking charge of East Germany’s Under-21s, Olympic and finally the senior team in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s before reunification in 1990.
He then moved on to Germany’s top-flight with Hertha Berlin, before coaching stints in Ukraine and Australia. He wondered even more off the beaten path, briefly, when he was named the head coach of the Oman national team in 2001. A year later he got really adventurous, taking the Iraq job.
Amid threats from United States President George W Bush of a possible military conflict with the country, Stange arrived in Baghdad in October 2002 and put pen to paper on a four-year contract that included a clause allowing him to leave in the event of war.
US military forces invaded in 2003 but Stange stayed put. From bullets being fired at his bodyguard to witnessing sites of suspected chemical attacks, he’s clearly not a man who chases an easy life, or runs from a difficult one.
He signed a contract to take over Syria in January this year. He lives in the capital Damascus despite being aware of the reported 400,000 people that have been killed or reported missing over seven years of war.
What makes a man want to continue to work in these sorts of environments, where there is such risk?
“People are hungry to see football,” Stange says, simply.
“It was similar in Iraq and maybe it was tougher there after the war. It was very dangerous, with hostages and all the other things.
“I’ve been in Basra for a tournament with Qatar and Iran with capacity crowds, 65,000, in the stadium. But if you see how those people need football. A 15-year boycott and now they are happy to be in Karbala or Basra, and that’s a motivation for me.
“It’s a challenge to do similar things with the Syrian team, that’s my goal. Now I am focused to do my job in Syria and I’m not afraid because if you are afraid you cannot go to an airport in Europe, you cannot go to a Christmas market, you cannot go to a coffee shop in Paris, it’s everywhere.
“I hope the world will be quiet and we can play football and make people happy.”
Pushed on why he took the Syria job rather than ease more gently towards retirement, he adds: “I had easy jobs, with Perth Glory in Australia. It’s easier to coach such a team or in Germany or Belarus.
“I thought I would finish my job (after the failed World Cup qualification) but they are so kind these people, and so full of hope after our campaign. We met each other and with the players, I feel there’s a very good atmosphere and that’s why I’ve signed this contract until January.”
Bert van Marwijk qualified fellow Asian Cup opponents Saudi Arabia for this summer’s World Cup. But he didn’t get the chance to take them to Russia as he was sacked during contract extension discussions – although he did end up going, coincidentally in charge of the Socceroos.
The Dutchman attracted criticism for his reluctance to relocate to the country during his two years in charge. That is not an issue for Stange though who happily resides in the Syrian capital.
“For me, I’m like a Syrian. I’m living with them, I do my job in Damascus,” he said.
“It’s not easy right now as you know and very difficult to plan the future under circumstances of war. It’s now seven years that nothing goes normal and it’s not easy. But I try to do my job.”
He also reserves plenty of praise for the players, who have forged successful paths outside their homeland. Although they must do so knowing the dangers their families deal with on a day to day basis back home.
He is proud of their commitment, saying: “You know these are Syrians who left their country, but their families are still there. Asian player of the year Omar Khrbin, Omar Osama are all coming back for Ramadan to see their families and they are committed. They are Syrians.
“I felt similar things when I visited players in Europe, in Germany, in Holland, in Sweden, in Italy, they are all Syrians, they want to show they want to play for their home country.”
Stange was hired as Iraq coach after the country’s football authorities were impressed by him earning a 1-0 victory over them with Oman.
And the German feels his impressive handling of the Lions of Mesopotamia was what led to Syrian football officials approaching him.
“I think they approached me to coach Syria because of this experience which I made in Iraq before and after the war,” he added.
“To be quiet under difficult circumstances, to show leadership, to show them a way to make international contacts, to arrange training, good matches. That’s maybe why they approached me.
“I’m quite happy to now, everything is on track and that’s why I think we are not a dark horse for this tournament. I think we can achieve something.”
Syria’s is a story already worth reading, but Stange feels he and his current squad can add a few more chapters come January.