Mahdi Ali, engineering the future

Dubai is one of the place that arouse a lot of curiosity all over the world. It’s not rare to see tourists visiting UAE to understand this plot of wealth and mystery placed on the shores of Persian Gulf. Capital of the homonym emirate, Dubai is the most popolous city of the country. To make it more desirable, a metro rail network was built. Dubai Metro was made available to the public in 2009 with two lines, while other three lines scheduled to be built in the next future. This metro was the first one built in the Arabic Peninsula: it raised a success so high to transport everyday 450.000 people (20% of Dubai population). One of the people to built this metro is a electrical engineer, graduated from Dubai Men’s College: his contribution was useful to realize a parking project and the ticketing system for Dubai Metro. Yet his pre and post-engineering career was all about football.

Yes, because, Mahdi Ali Hassan Redha maybe a engineer and a Roads and Transport Authority-member in Dubai, in 2012 he came back full-time to his first love.

He did it because there was a more important job: coaching United Arab Emirates after rising through the ranks. After four years from that call, Mahdi Ali’s touch can be seen.

mahdi-ali-1Regrets

That past on the field, though, brought more pain than joy to Mahdi Ali. Despite a good success in his homeland, Ali played only eight games with his national team. As he often said, all friendlies: he never appeared in a official game with UAE. Never a serious chance to be managed by high-profile managers of UAE in those years: Carlos Alberto Parreira, Mario Zagallo, Valery Lobanovsky.
Yet there’s a bigger missed chance to cry for: 1990 World Cup in Italy.
UAE qualified for the first time to a World Cup-final stage in that year. Their italian journey was made of three defeats and only two scored goals, but it’s still a beginning. To which, unfortunately, Ali can’t be present. The same manager remembered that disappointment:

Whenever we had an official game, I was injured. It was a huge disappointment for me. I was in the 1990 World Cup squad and I was left out because I suffered an injury one week before the team’s departure to Italy.

Forever Al Ahli

In his 15 years-player’s career, Mahdi Ali wore only one jersey, the one of Al Ahli. Of Iranian descent, the young midfielder then became a pillar for Fursan (the “Knights”) and won several trophies. If we add the youth ranks-years, Ali’s connection with Al Ahli lasted from 1973 to 1998. Sometimes football was the only thing in his mind in those years:

I played for more than seven hours a day. I was only thinking of football in my younger days,

he said.

I had foregone the exam to play the final and it resulted in low marks.

If you think about it retirement is mandatory for players, but Ali never really quit football, not even when he started working for Dubai Municipality. His apprenticeship as manager was step-by-step: first the U-10s of Al Ahli, then a journey between England and Germany for his A-level certificate. In the end, a call from UAE federation came to be assistant coach for U-16 side in 2003. Five years from that call, the first question: could Ali leave his government job to coach full-time UAE’s U-19 side? Ali was then able to pick a compromise between work and passion, but it’ll be the best choice of his life.

madhiBuilding hope

In his hands, UAE U-19 side won AFC Championship in 2008 and then U-20 – which was formed by the same players of that victory – left a good impression in 2009 U-20 FIFA World Cup hosted in Egypt. In that team, there are many promising youngsters who then made it to the senior side. It’s not a case if the symbol of that hope became today one of the best players in Asian football: Ahmed Khalil is only 25 years-old, yet he’s already both in the history of UAE and his club.

It may be a twist of fate, but that club is Al Ahli, the same of Mahdi Ali’s career. Like him, Khalil played for Fargan since he was very young: he debuted only 15 years old.

A short break from national sides – in which he confirms a 2nd place-season for Baniyas, reaching qualification to AFC Champions League – reignites Ali’s desire to coach again a UAE squad. And this time a big challenge was ahead of him: bringing U-23 squad to London Olympics. Anyway, Ali is like Re Mida in Gulf football: a spot to London was snatched with a incredible comeback in Uzbekistan (from 0-2 to 3-2 in 93th minute). It’s the first appearance of UAE in Olympic football.

Like in 1990 World Cup, the journey in London left no material satisfaction, but wise teaching. UAE closes the group as last-placed behind Great Britain, Senegal and Uruguay, scoring three goals and collecting only one point. But those boys keep growing together, proving to Asia they could be better than this.

At that point, UAE federation needed a new manager for national team. Down to the wire, there’s a shoot-out between Ali and Diego Armando Maradona, a beloved guest in UAE. In the end, Ali gets the job. And the nicest thing of all is that Maradona himself will praise this national team when he’ll see himself a qualification game to 2015 AFC Asian Cup:

I predict a big future for this team.

Taking giants steps

Maybe Maradona’s preview was even too little: last two years by UAE were a massive boost of confidence for the team. To qualify for 2015 AFC Asian Cup, UAE collected five wins and only one draw in a group which featured Uzbekistan (not the easiest of opponents).

Then the masterpiece in Australia: UAE have easily the best of Qatar (4-1) and Bahrain (2-1) before losing 1-0 to Iran. In quarter-finals, Japan might seem a undefeatable team, but that day Mahdi Ali learned a great lesson. In a game that will be remembered by Nippon Daihyo as a missed chances-festival, why are we trying to overachieve?

Final shoot on goal-count was embarassing, but UAE stood up to the challenge and made it through PKs. Because there’s no more important lesson than be faithful to yourselves, having an identity beyond the opponent:

You don’t always have to place nice football to win the game, sometimes you have to play with your heart and with your spirit to win the game. Football sometimes is not fair. It was not fair for us in the Iran game and today I think we deserved to go on to the semi-final.

That UAE side then got 3rd place at the end of the tournament, but mostly it confirmed how a good quality-job was made by Ali in recent years. And it’s not by accident that UAE keep their progress in 2016: they made it through 3rd round of AFC qualification to 2018 FIFA World Cup with two games to spare and have a good start in Group B, where UAE had again the better of Japan (even if with some critics) and Australia had some problems winning in Abu Dhabi, despite Aussies made it 1-0.

With this squad and this manager, with three aces in front – aside already mentioned Khalil, Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout (top-scorer of last AFC Asian Cup) – and the next Asian Cup to host in UAE, who knows where this squad will get under the guidance of this engineer. He’s trying to build a future.