Wednesday 26 January 2022, 19:00

Ramadan: Al Jazira want to prove that 2017 wasn’t a fluke

  • Al Jazira will become the first UAE Club to play in two FIFA Club World Cups

  • Academy graduates led Al Jazira to semi-final in 2017

  • A largely unused sub in 2017, Abdulla Ramadan is now the team’s talisman

The fairy tale of AS Pirae might be the focus of attention when the opening game of the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2021™ gets underway, but across the pitch history will also be made by Al Jazira, who will become the first Emirati club to appear in two editions of the competition. In a region where teams tend to spend their way to league titles, the Abu Dhabi-based outfit have drafted their own path to glory, relying on a core of homegrown talent to deliver two UAE Pro League titles in the span of five years, with the club having previously won just one crown in its four decades of existence.

Five years ago, former Chelsea and Barcelona assistant coach Henk ten Cate led an unfancied group of youngsters to break all sorts of domestic records, winning the UAE Pro League title with the highest points tally in the competition’s history, while the poster boy for the club’s youth development, Ali Mabkhout, became the first Emirati player to win the league’s top scorer award with a record 32 goals. Ten Cate’s boys then took on the world, starting their FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2017™ journey with a 1-0 victory over New Zealand’s Auckland City, then downing Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds with the same score thanks to a second-half Mabkhout goal. Al Jazira’s real 15 minutes of fame arrived in the semi-finals when they locked horns with European champions Real Madrid. Some heroic goalkeeping from skipper Ali Khaseif earned him the Man of The Match Award and for a brief moment in the second half, the word ‘impossible’ ceased to exist as Mbark Boussoufa beat Keylor Navas to seemingly make it 2-0 for the home side after Romarinho had given them the lead before the break. Heartbreak would follow as the Moroccan playmaker was flagged offside and VAR ruled out the goal, then Khaseif was stretched off injured before goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale finally broke Al Jazira’s resistance to win it for Real Madrid. “Participating in a competition as big as the FIFA Club World Cup is an incredible feeling, especially for a young player,” midfielder Abdulla Ramadan told

Ramadan had watched from the bench as his fellow academy graduates, including Mohammed Al Attas and Khalifa Al Hammadi, made history in 2017. He was then handed his Al Jazira debut in the second half of the third-place play-off against Pachuca of Mexico, going on to become a bonafide star for club and country. “When I was called up for the squad in 2017, I had never played for the first team, so it was a unique experience for me,” said the 23-year-old. “And even though I barely played, I learned a lot from the experience of tournament atmosphere and facing big teams from across the world in a short span of time.” Al Attas, Al Hammadi and Ramadan are now mainstays of the United Arab Emirates national team and have since led Al Jazira to league title glory again in 2020/21, before adding the UAE Super Cup just weeks ahead of their return to the Club World Cup. “We return to the competition this time as a more experienced team,” said Ramadan. “We also have experienced heads like captain Ali Khaseif, Thulani Serero and Milos Kosanovic and we have even more desire now. We want to prove that reaching the semi-finals in 2017 wasn’t a fluke. “For me and my team-mates who did not start games or were not with the team five years ago, this is an opportunity and a challenge to show that we can do just as well as our colleagues did in 2017.” Former Ajax and Sporting coach Marcel Keizer continued the Dutch tradition established under Ten Cate, and the Al Jazira boss continues to oversee more names making the journey from academy to first team and national team. “The harmony within the squad and the continuity in the team are two of our most important weapons,” he said. “We have a group of players that came through the ranks of the academy together, so we know each other very well, on and off the pitch. “Every season, more players are promoted to the first team, and that motivates young players. Most recently we saw our team-mate Abdullah Idris go through the same path from the academy to receive his first UAE call-up. As a youngster, when you see such a clear path and an opportunity ahead of you, you work harder and with more confidence, and in my opinion that is what differentiates our club.”