Left to right: Fabio Lima, Sebastian Tagliabue, Caio Canedo Correa
Left to right: Fabio Lima, Sebastian Tagliabue, Caio Canedo Correa - the latter two have received UAE passports while Lima is expected to receive his this week Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Dubai: The names Tagliabue and Caio could soon find their way on the back of a UAE national football team shirt after the Whites started naturalising players last week.

So far, Al Wahda’s Argentine striker Sebastian Tagliabue and Al Ain’s Brazilian forward Caio Canedo Correa are the first to be given passports, but there’s also talk Al Wasl’s Brazilian forward Fabio Lima might also follow suit.

Why is the UAE doing this?

World Cup Qualification Group G
The UAE are currently fourth in their World Cup qualifying group five points behind leaders Vietnam with four games to go and only the top team plus five best runners up from eight groups of five progress. Image Credit: Google

The first World Cup to be held in the region - Qatar 2022 - is just around the corner, but the UAE stand a chance of not being there. They are currently fourth in their third round qualifying group, five points behind leaders Vietnam with four games remaining, and only the top team and four to five best runners-up from eight groups of five progress.

After starting off with wins away to Malaysia 2-1 and at home to Indonesia 5-0, they then went on to lose 2-1 away to Thailand and 1-0 away to Vietnam. Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk was sacked and has been replaced with Serbian Ivan Jovanovic ahead of games restarting again in March. But it seems along with Ivan there will also be some new names on the field as well as off it.

How do these players qualify?

Two UAE passports have been granted to foreign players so far, a third is expected this week Image Credit: Supplied

Fifa rules stipulate that you can be eligible to represent a national team after five years of living in that country, provided you have not already represented your national team back home in a competitive fixture.

Both Tagliabue, Caio and Lima have lived in the UAE over five years since joining UAE clubs and thus qualify having never played for their country of origin.

The Fifa five-year rule is not new, but the UAE’s reaction to it is, and the decision to finally allow naturalisation comes after a royal decree from President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan issued in November 2017.

That decree stated that players born to Emirati women with expatriate husbands, those holding UAE passports, those born in the UAE and also those residing in the UAE can now take part in local sport.

The UAE have previously only qualified for one World Cup in 1990 when they were knocked out in the group stages, they have also won two Gulf Cups in 2007 and 2013 and have qualified for the Olympics once, again getting knocked out in the group. Image Credit: Mustafa Al Ameeri

The Federal National Council approved the new ruling’s regulations and conditions drafted by the UAE General Sports Authority in April of last year.

There are already four foreigners each allowed to play in each of the 14 Arabian Gulf League clubs, so there’s a potential pool of 56 foreigners to choose from if they have lived in the UAE over five years and haven’t already represented their own national team at home in a competitive fixture.

Who else is doing it?

Omar Abdul Rahman, who is already in the UAE national team is actually a Saudi born player of Yemeni descent Image Credit: UAE Football Association

Well, technically, and to complicate matters, the UAE has already been doing it, as the national team’s best player Omar Abdul Rahman was born in Saudi and is of Yemeni descent, but he was granted a UAE passport when he joined Al Ain in 2006 and thus can represent the national team. But this is the first time the UAE has made overtly non-Arab players available for selection.

It’s a case of if you can’t beat them join them as well. There are several examples around the world such as Brazilian striker Diego Costa who plays for Spain despite having no ancestral link to the country other than living there. And even closer to home, regionally Qatar have become the masters of naturalising players with at least nine of their current squad and recent call-ups born outside the country with no ancestral links to the peninsula. Even their top all-time scorer Sebastian Soria was born in Uruguay.

My parents are very happy because I am close to them and the fact I chose to play for Spain over Brazil doesn’t affect a thing. They know I made the decision and I have their support always.

- Diego Costa, Brazilian striker who chose to play for Spain

The UAE were knocked out in the semi-finals of the Asian Cup 4-0 on home soil last year to eventual champions Qatar before again losing to them 4-2 to exit the Gulf Cup group stages, so it really has become a case of having to join countries like this in their natrulisation policy in order to beat them.

Is it part of a bigger shift in UAE society?

190911 alisha moopen
Alisha Moopen, deputy managing director of Aster DM Healthcare receives a 10-year residency visa, and is just one of 2,169 expat investors, scientists or special talents to have done so since the system was introduced last year. Image Credit: Supplied

Of course, the presidential decree to allow foreigners to represent the UAE is part of something much bigger going on in UAE society at the moment. It pre-empted last year’s permanent residency visa announcement (in 10-year renewable stints) granted to investors and special talents including scientists and exceptional students.

A total of 1,272 people were granted these visas last year taking the number to 2,169 if you include eligible family members.

This move was made in a bid to retain talent within the country and give them stability within the country to commit to longer term business and research.

In a post oil economy and with only 11 per cent of the UAE’s population being Emirati, the country acknowledges the fact that it will need to draw on all of its human capital to maintain its seismic growth from the country’s formation in 1971 until now.

Gold Card Visas in numbers
A total of 1,272 people were granted these visas last year taking the number to 2,169 if you include eligible family members.

Last year was the Year of Tolerance, where the UAE’s commitment to welcoming and embracing people of all faiths and backgrounds, was underlined, with over 200 nationalities living in harmony with each other.

Pope Francis arriving in Abu Dhabi in February 2019. Here he can be seen waving to Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE's Armed Forces. Image Credit: AFP

The first Papal visit to the UAE by Pope Francis in February was among the highlights of this theme along with the announcement of a religious compound being constructed in Abu Dhabi that will house places of worship for all three Abrahamic faiths, including a synagogue.

This year the UAE’s theme is ‘2020 for the Next 50’ as we approach the country’s hosting of Dubai Expo 2020, and the message from the country’s rulers is unanimous, we need everyone together to go forward.

The UAE national team selecting a few South Americans is just part of this. And even if they still fail to qualify to the Qatar World Cup, short term competitiveness wasn’t the overall aim.

What does it mean for your kids?

Former West Ham, Tottenham and Sevilla striker Freddie Kanoute leads one of many kids' football academies in the UAE but expat talent hasn't previously been able to move up into the local professional league clubs, forcing them to pursue their careers outside of the country. Image Credit: Kafo Academy

For too long expat children, born or living long-term in the UAE who were good at sports have had no professional forum to advance to, as clubs have traditionally given preference to Emirati talent. This has meant that they have had to leave the country to pursue their careers at 16, splitting entire families or forcing families to relocate. This talent drain hasn’t just been happening in sport, but it is where it has been most apparent. And now local universities and colleges, like football clubs, are looking to retain talent, hence the 10-year Gold Card Visa introduction.

Two or three South Americans in the UAE national team may take a bit of getting used to at first, especially given that they have no ancestral link to the country, but they are there to serve as a long-term example to our youth of all background. If you work hard you can get here, there is no glass ceiling and you can stay, play and represent the country you call home, and we can win together. There’s no longer a need to leave.

What the players are saying

In 2014 I landed in the UAE with the aim of making history. After six years playing here, I can only thank everyone who welcomed me so well in the country. It is an honour to receive this invitation and I hope to continue representing this wonderful place.

- Caio Canedo Correa, Al Ain's Brazilian forward seen here right in the colours of his former club Al Wasl.

OK, I’ve got the passport, but I have to wait to see if the national team coach chooses me. And after that, I have to be in good shape and show to the national team why they gave me the passport. In the beginning, I’m very happy and proud – it’s an amazing chance that I will have. On the other hand, it’s pressure, it’s a serious thing; it’s no joke. But I’m more than ready to take this chance.

- Sebastian Tagliabue, Al Wahda's Argentine striker

I have been in the UAE for six years now, and I have always given my best for my team [Al Wasl]. It won’t be any different if I am included in the UAE national team, whether it is on the bench or in the playing eleven. I am here to play and help the UAE achieve its goals. I don’t want to look too much into the future but if I do get the opportunity, then I am always willing to do my best.

- Fabio Lima, Al Wasl's Brazilian forward

Has this happened before in other UAE sports?

Sergiu Toma, an Olympic bronze medallist from Rio 2016, was born in Moldova. He's only the second person to win an Olympic medal for the UAE after Ahmad Al Maktoum won gold in the men's double trap shooting contest in Athens 2004. Image Credit: Ahmad Kutty, Gulf News Archives

In a nutshell yes, different world governing bodies of sport allow different periods of residency before a player is eligible to represent a country, like three years instead of five. And in a bid to fast-track the development of games like rugby and cricket in the UAE, those predominantly expat-centric games have long included foreign born talent - cricket almost entirely given the large subcontinent expatriate community here, and rugby to a lesser extent nowadays due to large recruitment drives within local schools.

At the Olympics, the UAE has long had Ethiopian-born runners Alia Saeed Mohammad and Betlhem Desalegn. And one of the country’s only two medals at the Olympics was won by Moldovan-born Judoka Sergiu Toma, who won bronze in the men’s 81-kg at Rio 2016. The country’s only other medal was gold won by Ahmad bin Mohammad bin Hasher Al Maktoum in the men’s double trap shooting at Athens 2004. Football has come late to the party, but as the country’s national sport, it is perhaps most significant. Martial Arts like Judo, with a heavy emphasis on Jiu Jitsu among the Shaikhs in Abu Dhabi, is another area where expats like Sergiu Toma were expected in a bid to fast-track the game’s development among local youth, but within football, which deep-rooted and traditionally played already among local population, interweaving expats and foreigners is a massive leap.