'The San Siro was a dream come true'

Abdulrahman Mohammed looks on helpessly as Jurgen Klinsmann takes a dive. (GETTY)

It has been 18 years since the UAE played football on the world's biggest stage. Yet victory over Iran on Monday night will put them in a position of power as they seek to emulate the Emirates team of 'Italia 90'.

In 1990, the Falcons conquered Asia to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in their history. Having beaten Korea in their final match of qualification, they secured a place in Group D along with eventual champions West Germany, Yugoslavia and Colombia.

Now Abdulrahman Mohammed, the man who led the UAE on to the pitch 18 years ago, has described what lies in store for Bruno Metsu's men if they can qualify for South Africa 2010.

"We played against Korea and after that game it was confirmed that we had definitely qualified," says Mohammed, who earned 85 caps during his 15-year career. "It was like a dream come true. It was a dream that we achieved.

"Also, what made it more of a sense of achievement was that the UAE was not known for its football ability. We were not expected to qualify. And the fact we did while teams who were expected to qualify failed – such as China – it was a great achievement and something that I am still very proud of.

"The first true feeling of being a football player was playing in Italy – especially when I ran on to the pitch at the San Siro against Germany. It doesn't get any bigger or better than that: Jurgen Klinsmann, Rudi Voller, Andreas Brehme, Thomas Hassler, Lothar Matthaus..."

"You gain confidence and experience from playing on that stage against those kind of players; it's a learning curve and a turning point."

Mohammed is confident his country can come through their qualifying group, but is aware they are lacking quality throughout the team, which may prevent them from going all the way to South Africa. He also warns players should not rely too much on goal-scoring playmaker Ismail Mattar.

"It is difficult if everything is about Ismail," says Mohammed, who himself won the Player of the Year award in 1986. "In 1990 we had international individuals, but they played as a team. We had superstars, but they could play as individuals and for the team.

"At that time, for every position on the field, we had at least three or four excellent players to play in each position. We had a real depth to our squad and that's what this team is lacking now. It is quite weak."

Mohammed, who played his entire career in the UAE, says any number of players from the 1990 side could have flourished in Europe had they been given the opportunity.

"Mentally, physically and professionally, that team had it in them," he says. "We were a bit maturer in 1990 than the current team; you could see it on the pitch.

"This team is younger, which is good, but maturity and experience can win you a game. And that's what football is all about."

Where are they now?

- Carlos Alberto Parreira is one of only two coaches who have led four different teams to a World Cup: Kuwait, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Brazilian was, until last month, coach of South Africa, but resigned after his wife fell ill and he decided to move home to Rio de Janiero to care for her.

- Mossain Mossaba was, in 1990, Al Sharjah Club's first-choice goalkeeper. Today the Emirati remains heavily involved in football holding senior roles at both his old club and the national team. At Al Sharjah he is the Director of Football and works closely with UAE coach Bruno Metsu.

- Khalil Ghanim is remembered as one of the best ever defenders the country has produced. Plying his trade at Al Khaleej, the stocky stopper shunned the limelight and now, while ocassionally appearing on TV, tends to keep himself to himself.

- Khalid Ismail was one of the UAE's two goalscorers at 'Italia 90'. A striker with Al Nasr, he now works at the new Dubai International Airport in Jebel Ali. He also works as an agent, helping to bring players and coaches, such as Hatta's Brazilian Roger, to the Emirates.

- Rampaging midfielder Ali Thani was the other goalscorer for the UAE at the 1990 World Cup. The Al Sharjah Club midfielder no longer has any affiliation with one club, but issometimes used as an analyst on sports shows in the Emirates.

- Nasser Khamis, brother of the UAE's legendary striker Fahid Khamis, was a midfielder at Al Wasl Club. He continues to work there as a coach and is one of the fittest former players to take part in the annual Old National Team's tournament. Last week's event took place in Jordan.

- Zohair Bakhit was the Ismail Mattar of the 1990s. An attacking midfielder with pace and flair, the Emirati's only downfall was his temperament. Now he stays away from the public eye opting to dedicate his life to Islam. Occasionally he appears on TV, but only after a win for Al Wasl, where he played.

- Essa Mirz, whose twin brother also represented the national side, was a reliable defender who played international football throughout the eighties, after featuring prominently for his club side Al Sharjah. He now helps makes the decisions at Al Sharjah, as a member of the board.

- Mubarak Ghanim was a forward best known for his goal against Bahrain in the 1988 Gulf Cup, that sent the national side on their way to a 2-0 victory. The former hitman now appears regularly as a TV analyst for etisalat League and cup games.

- Arguably the best striker in the UAE's history, Adnan Talyani played for Al Shaab Club. Without their star forward the Falcons would never have qualified for 'Italia 90'. Talyani now works for the UAE FA where he is a member of the board.

- Hussein Ghoroum may have come from a family of footballers, but the left-footer arguably excelled more than any of his predecessors. The midfielder played for Al Sharjah Club, and now acts as trainer to the club's youth teams, working with players in the Under-15s and below.

- Abdulrahman Mohammed was a midfielder for Al Nasr. Captaining the UAE, he won 85 caps and even claimed the Player of the Year Award in 1986. He now works for Showtime as a pundit, coaches at the Manchester United Soccer School and writes a weekly column for Emarat Al Youm.