Dubai: When he was in his early teens, Ali Saleh was benched for a full season by his coach at Al Wasl.
The prodigious 13-year-old never understood such a treatment and was ready to give up playing football altogether.
His dad Saleh convinced the youngster to stay. Two years later and a day after his 15th birthday, Ali made his debut against Al Ain to enter the history books of UAE football as the youngest-ever to play in a senior club squad.
Competition regulations state that a player has to be at least 15 years young to play among the seniors. Ali was asked to join the senior team by then Argentinian midfielder turned coach Gabriel Calderon.
“I can still remember those moments when I was warming up and was called by my coach who told me what I needed to do. Al Ain was a strong side with the likes of Omar Abdul Rahman dominating the midfield and attack. I felt a strange feeling in my stomach, but I was eager to go out there and prove the faith put in me by my coach,” Ali, recipient of the Golden Ball for Best Young Player in the Arabian Gulf League awards last week, recalled of that debut on January 23, 2016.
Looking back at his debut moment in an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Ali said: “When I look back to that day of my life, there is only one advice I can give young and aspiring footballers. Please don’t give up on your dreams. Everyone has a time, and when it is right, it will come. I learnt my lesson sitting on the sidelines for a full season. I was training hard and I was playing well, but I didn’t get an opportunity to prove myself on the ground. On the contrary, I started doubting my abilities. And if it was not for my dad who pushed me to remain patient, I really don’t know what career path I would have taken,” the 19-year-old shrugged.
Ali’s next step was making it into the national squad that nearly made it to the 2018 Fifa World Cup held in Russia. In the company of some of the best players, the enthusiastic youngster thrived. The UAE didn’t make it through to Russia but Ali got the belief that a qualification to the biggest football spectacle is very much within reach of the UAE.
“I think finally qualifying to an event like the World Cup will come with self-belief. As an individual I am convinced the UAE can qualify for a second time, but football is a team sport and we all need to believe we can make it to the next one in three years’ time,” he signed off.
Moving on to his new-found recognition, Saleh said: “More than a week later I still find it difficult to believe that I am in fact the best young player in the UAE. It’s such a happy moment of my career and it’s just an honour to be just even nominated for this award along with my two other teammates.”
One of the most immediate impact was that the young Ali was picked up for a three-year individual athlete contract with sports manufacturer Nike.
“Winning individual awards has been a dream from as far as I can remember. This is true for any sportsman as such awards helps increase personal focus and self-belief as well. This award is more of a motivation for me to work harder. I think it will hopefully be the start of some great things. Who knows what the future holds, perhaps something even bigger,” he smiled.
Even though their youngest player bagged the award, Al Wasl’s campaign this season was not too flamboyant as The Cheetahs are destined either for an eighth or ninth place finish in the AGL depending on the results of the 26th and final round of matches this weekend. Al Wasl play Kalba at the Zabeel Stadium, while neighbours Al Nasr — who are also vying for eighth place — are up against Al Jazira at the same time.
“This was definitely not our best season as we didn’t really do well in any of the competitions we were involved in. This is hard to take in as we had been doing well in the past two or three years. We should have kept our momentum going, but that was not so,” he mulled.
Date of birth: January 22, 2000
Place of birth: Dubai
Residence: Jumeirah, Dubai
Club playing: Al Wasl
Club followed: Manchester United
Idols growing up: Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi
Early memories of watching football: Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt on Marco Materrazi during 2006 World Cup final
First goal for Al Wasl: Against Al Shabab at end of season, and just before the club was merged with Al Ahli and Dubai Club (May 2017)
Goals: Playing in one of the leagues in Europe, perhaps the English Premier League with Manchester United.
Academics: Studying International Relations (Media)