1989 was a ground-breaking year for the UAE’s national football team: it was the first and only time they qualified for the Fifa World Cup.
It was a moment so cathartic it moved Emirati commentator Adnan Hamad to tears. The team were underdogs, but they had emerged victorious during the Asian Football Confederation’s qualifying matches in Singapore and earned a spot at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
“Anwar Roma,” said the commentator. “I see the lights of Rome.”
But the UAE’s singular foray into the world’s biggest sporting event has become a forgotten victory. When sports journalist Ali Khalid began a story on it a couple of years ago, he struggled for information. Soon after, he approached Abu Dhabi production house Image Nation and proposed he direct the first documentary — and his first film — about the historic moment.
Lights of Rome screened at New York’s DOC NYC festival on November 17, and releases across select theatres in the UAE today.
“It’s not so much just about them playing at the World Cup. It’s the journey to get there,” said Khalid.
“Everyone knows they qualified in Singapore, but when they flew out, no one back home was expecting anything. Some of the media at that point had no interest in what the team was doing — they didn’t expect them to do anything,” he added.
On top of that, conditions in Singapore were tough. It was constantly raining and the boys were going against teams that, at the time, were considered far better than the UAE.
But they made it. This is partially thanks to Adnan Al Talyani, the star of the team, considered by many to be the best player the UAE has ever had, alongside Ali Thani and Khalid Ismail, the only two Emirati players to ever score in the global tournament. “They were probably in their early to mid-20s, some of them maybe late 20s,” said Khalid.
“Every single player that played in the World Cup or qualified for the World Cup was born before the UAE was created. They were all born in the late 60s.”
The UAE was founded on December 2, 1971, bringing together seven emirates, and within weeks, the UAE Football Association was formed.
“These kids [on the team] were born in Sharjah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Fujairah, but you couldn’t call them Emiratis when they were born, because the country had not been unified yet,” said Khalid.
He and his crew had to hunt for footage of the UAE in its early days. He reached out to Abu Dhabi TV for video and to news publications, such as Gulf News, for stills. He also approached Fifa for videos of World Cup matches.
“It was tough. It was very tough,” he admitted.
He shot the bulk of the documentary locally, but travelled to Brazil to meet with the team’s 1980s coach, Carlos Parreira — their World Cup coach Mario Zagallo wasn’t well enough to be involved — and made a pit stop in Germany to chat with former captain of West Germany (the team that defeated the UAE in the World Cup), Lothar Matthaus.
Back in the UAE, a few former footballers he reached out to were no longer involved in the game. “Some of them work for the police department. One of them works for the Dubai Airports authority,” said Khalid. It was tough to sell them on the film. But after coming on board, the ex-teammates even set up a WhatsApp group to keep in touch.
“They’re very modest guys...They’re not seeking attention. They’re very proud of what they’ve done, but some of them were not sure what this story was about,” said Khalid.
To him, a Palestinian sports journalist who grew up in Abu Dhabi and calls it home, the film is a document of a historic achievement — a gift to a younger generation of Emiratis.
“After all this time, now, there’s a chance the UAE might go back to the World Cup. The 1990 team, we call them the golden generation, and now we’re calling the current team the second golden generation of Emirati players,” he said.
The film features current coach Mahdi Ali and his 25-year-old star player Omar Abdul Rahman. The way Khalid sees it, they could get their own documentary in due time.
“Hopefully, if the UAE qualifies for the World Cup again, we can do a film about that,” he said.