Gulf rivals eye the big prize
By Ali Khaled
March 29, 2016. Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi had rarely experienced such an eruption of noise. Omar Abdulrahman, the darling of the mostly Emirati crowd, had just scored the UAE’s equalizer against Saudi Arabia, and the home team had just under 40 minutes to pull off a feat not achieved in nine years: A win over the team that has become their biggest international rival, not to mention bogey team.
The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been brewing for three decades, and is perhaps now the biggest between Gulf nations, and maybe in the Middle East. But that wasn’t always the case.
In the 1970s, it was the golden generations of Kuwait and Iraq that ruled the nascent international football scene in the region. The UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were routinely thrashed by two teams that, between them, would go on to completely dominate the Gulf Cup from its inception in 1970 until 1990; qualify for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow; win the AFC Asian Cup (Kuwait 1980), and qualify to the World Cup (Kuwait in 1982, Iraq in 1986).
By the mid-1980s, a power shift was taking place. As the great Kuwait and Iraq teams reached the end of their life-cycles, Saudi Arabia first, and the UAE later in the decade, put down historical markers.
Led by the likes of Mohaisen Al Jaman and the brilliant Majed Abdullah, the Saudis won the 1984 AFC Asian Cup in Singapore and reclaimed it four years later in Qatar. The UAE’s own golden generation, boasting Adnan Talyani, Fahad Khamees and Ali Thani among others, pulled off an arguably more impressive, perhaps miraculous, feat.
Having narrowly failed to reach the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, the UAE became one of the smallest, and youngest, nations to play in the competition four years later in Italy. It remains their only participation at football’s showpiece event. Saudi Arabia emulated that achievement at USA 94, and the rivalry between the two teams really began to take shape as they defeated the UAE on penalties at the 1996 AFC Asian Cup final in Abu Dhabi.
The Saudi national team followed that up by qualifying to the next three World Cups: France 1998, Japan and Korea 2002, and Germany 2006. Each brought diminishing returns. A humiliating 8-0 loss to Germany in 2002 set in motion a decline that the Saudis are still grappling with to this day. In that time, the UAE won its first two Gulf Cup titles and finished third at the AFC Asian Cup last year, one of Coach Mahdi Ali’s first targets when he took over.
In the end, Omar Abdulrahman and co could not break their jinx against Saudi Arabia at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. Still, the 1-1 draw in the 2018 World Cup second round qualifier last March saw Saudi Arabia and the UAE finish first and second respectively in their group, ensuring progress to the third round of qualification. It was the third time the two Gulf neighbors have met in the last two years, the previous two having been won by Saudi Arabia, 3-2 at the 2014 Gulf Cup, and 2-1 in the first World Cup qualifier.
When it comes to Saudi Arabia, this young, often brilliant Emirati team seems to have developed something of a mental barrier, one they must break down if they are to have a realistic chance of making the World Cup in Russia in two years’ time. On April 12, the draw for the third round of World Cup qualifiers was made in Kuala Lumpur, and the UAE coach must have cast a rueful eye over the list of opponents. His team pitted in the same group as Asian powerhouses Australia and Japan, but also against Bert van Marwijk’s Saudi Arabia, yet again.
With the current and previous holders of the AFC Asian Cup strongly tipped to claim the two automatic spots to Russia, it could leave the UAE and Saudi Arabia, alongside Iraq and unfancied Thailand, fighting for third place in Group B, and one last chance to advance. Should that scenario arise, it could yet prove a hugely thankless task. Third spot only guarantees a two-legged play-off against the corresponding team from Group A, which features Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, China, Qatar and Syria. None will be pushovers.
The winner of the playoff is then expected to negotiate another two-leg tie with the fourth-placed team in the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) section, possibly Trinidad or Jamaica. Neither team will be looking that far ahead yet. Publicly Ali may not care for historical trends, but in private he will likely look back on the last three meetings he has overseen between the teams with some concern. The drought, however, goes back even further.
The UAE’s last win over Saudi Arabia was a momentous one; captain Ismail Matar scoring the winning goal in the 2007 Gulf Cup final at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Yet since that landmark day the Emiratis have lost three World Cup qualifiers, drawn one and lost two Gulf Cup semi-finals.
Such sequences do not always provide accurate barometers of the relative merits of each team. Since the 2012 Olympic Games, the UAE have gone from strength to strength, culminating in a third place finish at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia, a competition Saudi Arabia exited meekly at the group stage.
However, having topped the World Cup qualifying group recently, the Saudis will argue that they have now retained the upper hand, and the psychological advantage, over the UAE. Indeed, before the first of the qualifiers last year, the UAE, buoyed by the heroics in Australia, were 70th in the FIFA world rankings, fifth in Asia, and the highest placed Gulf team. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, languished at 88.
Now, the Emiratis sit at a commendable 68, while the Saudi’s have jumped an impressive 28 places to 60.
Form and rank seem to be on Saudi Arabia’s side. As does the weight of history. The UAE has won only six of 35 encounters against the Saudis, with seven draws and 22 defeats. They have not recorded a win on Saudi soil since a 2-0 friendly match in 2001.
Now all eyes turn to the resumption of the World Cup qualifying campaign. Coach Ali and Marwijk will no doubt give equal billing to every one of their 10 matches in Group B. However, it is difficult to avoid the sense it is the results of those two head-to-head clashes—in Saudi Arabia on October 11, 2016 and UAE on August 31, 2017—that could be the difference between spending the summer of 2018 at home, or among the world’s elite on the football fields of Russia.