Like this week’s semi-final, the 1996 AFC Asian Cup final was also one of those ‘I remember when, where and what might have been’ moments in sport and in life.
Watching the 1996 penalty shoot-out all those years ago, I can still feel the pain of our nation narrowly missing out on becoming champions.
While those emotions remain, I can look back now and smile with great gratitude at the legacies from this year’s tournament and from the 1996 tournament — the first time that the UAE had hosted a major international football event. At the time, we had been a unified country for only 25 years.
This alone shows what can happen when the right people come together and work towards a common goal. Truly, anything is possible.
As we have played host to the same event this year, one only needs to look at the development of our country over the subsequent 23 years to realise that progress — in all forms — is only limited by our imagination and our determination.
In football, it is exactly the same. All great strides come from fighting to make your dreams come true, underpinned by an unbreakable commitment to fairness.
As vice-chairman of the Local Organising Committee for this year’s Asian Cup, I have been lucky enough to oversee the hosting of the first ever 24-team Asian Cup and to witness several instances where nations have succeeded in turning hope into reality.
This is the first time that teams from the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan and Yemen have set foot in this great tournament. Can you imagine how thrilled they were to be here — and how thrilled we all were to embrace and welcome them here in solidarity as the newest members of the Asian Football Cup family.
We know that very few things in life are fair. But when these teams take to the field, they do so with as many players as the opponent, no matter how famous or wealthy they may be.
We must continue to grow football in our continent to enable more nations to participate in Asia’s premier football competition. Football has equality woven into its soul. That’s why it speaks to so many of us. The notion of fairplay is what football makes great.
It is those core values of integrity, respect and opportunity which we must always seek to protect. At this Asian Cup, the Organising Committee has done everything in its power to preserve those pillars. We believe that the beauty of football lives in three places: on the field; in stands with the fans; and in the dreams of young people from all backgrounds.
Therefore, everything we have done at this tournament has been about ensuring a fantastic experience for players and spectators alike, and to inspire the youth of our continent.
I hope these past 28 days of football in the UAE have reinforced football’s unique power to unite nations, and to bring Asia together — and what football can aspire to be in the future.
Expanding to 24 teams has been a great success here, whilst also demonstrating that we need to invest in closing the gap between nations and regions of Asia.
In the past seven World Cups, only six different teams have represented Asia. We must create equality for all, not just a lucky few to represent Asia, and participate on world’s grandest football stage.
Ultimately, every child in Asia should dream of playing at a future Asian Cup and World Cup. Isn’t that the very definition of fair?
Being part of the organising committee for this Asian Cup has given me an insight on what Asia needs to focus on going forward. The time has come for Asia’s football communities to push for something much greater.
If we can come together for the good of the sport we love, I see no reason why Asia cannot conquer the football world and even have a country reaching a World Cup final in the future.
— The author is vice-chairman of the LOC for the AFC Asian Cup 2019