Henk ten Cate hailed Al Jazira’s fighting spirit as they upset the odds to beat the champions of Asia and set up a dream FIFA Club World Cup semi-final against Real Madrid.
The Spanish giants, reigning European and world champions, will face the first UAE side to make it to the last four of the tournament on Wednesday after Ten Cate’s men put in a splendid display against Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds – who were crowned AFC Champions League winners just two weeks ago.
Asked in his post-match press conference what was the secret ingredient behind victory, Ten Cate insisted there was no secret.
“This is a team which was formed two years ago when I arrived and we decided to say goodbye to some players and decided to bring in some players from the academy,” said Ten Cate, who celebrated success on his 63rd birthday.
“It’s not a secret. It’s a team. I’ve said lots of times we might not have the best players but we have the best team and team spirit. We fight for each other and we have a big heart. I’m very happy and very proud of this team.”
It’s been some turnaround for the Pride of Abu Dhabi, who were flirting with relegation when Ten Cate took over in December 2015 from fallen club idol Abel Braga.
He steered Jazira to the safety of mid-table by the end of the 2015/16 campaign and also delivered the President’s Cup, before a first Arabian Gulf League crown in six years was hoisted last season.
“We are a team that is very difficult to beat and we will fight until the last minute. Urawa had more possession than us but we have a good
spirit, fighting spirit and willpower,” added the Dutchman, who believes Jazira are now playing for the country and the city on Wednesday.
“We won the President’s Cup together, the championship together. Now we haven’t won anything, the only thing we won is the love of football fans in the UAE. We are not only playing for the club, but Abu Dhabi and the UAE.”
Arabian Gulf League champions Jazira beat Asia champions Urawa Red Diamonds 1-0 in Abu Dhabi on Saturday thanks to Ali Mabkhout’s solitary goal at Zayed Sports City Stadium.
It means the Pride of Abu Dhabi become the first UAE side to reach the last four of the tournament, surpassing the achievements of Al Ahli in 2009 and Al Wahda a year later.
“I think it’s well deserved, the first time a team from the UAE have made a semi-final, so we are writing history for ourselves,” said Morocco international Boussoufa when asked if Wednesday’s mouthwatering clash with Los Blancos is the most important game in the nation’s history.
“I don’t think any other team from the UAE has made it to the semi-final, this is a first time, so by just doing that we’ve rewritten history. It’s a great feeling and we just have to get ready for the game.”
Zinedine Zidane’s La Liga juggernauts will be heavy favourites to win the game, to be played at the same venue in the capital. And Boussoufa believes that takes any pressure off Henk ten Cate’s side.
“What we did already is a fantastic job so it’s just nice to play Real Madrid and against all these big players,” admitted Boussoufa, 33, who helped the Atlas Lions qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia last month following an impressive 2-0 win in the Ivory Coast.
“I don’t think that comes with extra pressure because you’re automatically in the underdog role.”
Jazira were not given much hope of beating Asia’s finest, which Boussoufa admitted also plays into the hosts’ hands.
“I don’t think many believed we could win today’s game either so everything is possible in football,” added the 55-times capped attacking midfielder.
“But of course we have major respect for Real Madrid. They are one of the best teams in the world and we respect them.
“But as players we have no reason to fear anything. Just enjoy the game, enjoy being on such a big stage for a small country and a small club in the UAE. To be on a worldwide stage is just fantastic.”
Boussoufa has pedigree, having emerged from the ranks at Dutch giants Ajax before spending three years in Chelsea’s academy.
He has played Madrid once before, while at Anderlecht, but admits the experience of testing themselves against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale is a “dream” for Jazira’s players, especially youngsters like Mohammed Al Attas, who is just 20.
“I played against them one time before I think, in the Santiago Bernabeu Cup when I was at Anderlecht, just 21 or 22,” recalled Boussoufa.
“I know what it is like to play against the best team or one of the best teams in the world, it is an honour, especially for the boys.
“I have a bit more experience of the Champions League or Europa League where of course you meet big teams. But of course, for them, for the local boys, it’s a dream to play against Real.”
UAE Football Association president Marwan bin Ghalita has confirmed his nation are set to compete this month in the hastily rearranged and politically sensitive 23rd running of the Gulf Cup after regional pariahs Qatar gave up their hosting rights to Kuwait.
The regional tournament had been engulfed by June’s outbreak of the Qatar crisis, in which the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were among the countries to break off diplomatic ties because of alleged links to terrorism. This stance was cemented last month when the trio all officially pulled out in protest at Doha’s staging.
But FIFA’s decision last week to rescind their ban on Kuwait opened up an opportunity for redress, the Qataris forfeiting to Kuwait on Wednesday. This stance allowed Bin Ghalita late on Friday night to confirm the revelation earlier in the day from the world governing body’s president, Gianni Infantino, that the Whites have signed up to compete in an event which will run from December 22-January 8.
“The UAE will participate in the upcoming Gulf Cup in Kuwait,” Bin Ghalita told Abu Dhabi Sport. ” I talked with the coach [Alberto Zaccheroni] and he wished to participate in the tournament.”
A resolution has been made with such haste that the UAE announced an experimental squad on Thursday for a training camp in Dubai, set to feature friendlies against unnamed opposition on December 17 and Algeria on December 23
Infantino will be at the opening games in Kuwait City on December 22 and 23. The Swiss administrator hailed a “powerful message to the world” created by the chance in stance.
He said: “The initiative to move the 2017 Gulf Cup from Qatar to Kuwait to celebrate this event is a strong and symbolic sign. In this context, I would like to express my gratitude to the teams of Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen for participating in this tournament.
“The 2017 Gulf Cup will be a great celebration of football in the whole region and to have all eight teams participating in Kuwait sends a very powerful message to the world.”
A new draw is to be held on Monday. The UAE won the 2013 running and finished third in 2015.