The UAE national football team may have missed out on qualifying for the World Cup but it will be a dream come true for South Africa-bound Assistant Referee Saleh Mohamed Al Marzouqi.
Al Marzouqi is the third referee to go for the global showcase of football from the UAE after Ali Bujsaim (1994, 1998 and 2002) and Eisa Darwish (2006).
"I am very happy. This is a big responsibility for me to represent my country in the biggest football event," said Al Marzouqi who is grouped with Saudi Arabian referee Khalil Al Ghamdi and Iran's Hassan Kamranifar, one of the four trios of Asian referees selected for the month-long extravaganza which begins on June 11. Al Marzouqi assisted Al Ghamdi in three Asian Champions League matches and feels comfortable working with him.
Al Marzouqi expressed his gratitude to Shaikh Hazza bin Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE football association President Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithi and AFC Referees Committee Chairman Yousef Yaqoub Al Serkal for their encouragement and support.
"This is a historical moment for me as I got this news when I was performing Umrah in Mecca," said Al Marzouqi, who will join the select band of officials on March 15.
"It is a great achievement and I am very proud to be following in the footsteps of my idol Ali Bujsaim," Al Marzouqi told Emirates Business in an interview.
A midfielder at Al Wasl who did not graduate to the first team, his passion for the sport saw him pursue a career in athletics in long distance events at Al Nasr. But it was by accident that he took up the whistle while he was contemplating his future having just completed a diving course in 1997.
Urged by a friend to follow a football referees' course, his football and athletic skills, coupled with his military discipline, enabled him to rise up the ranks to qualify as an international referee in 2005.
"It was my dream to go to the World Cup because Ali Bujsaim was my inspiration. But I could not have achieved it without my wife's support," said Al Marzouqi, 39, recipient of UAE's Best Assistant Referee award which he dedicated to his better half. "She has held the responsibility of the family, especially during the past three months, when I was busy preparing for the World Cup. She has always supported me in my refereeing career," said the father of five.
Al Marzouqi underwent extensive medical and physical tests in Spain and Malaysia, which he described as very difficult. "They checked each part of my body. It was most difficult in Kuala Lumpur because the humidity was too much and weather very hot. I could not breathe very well there," said Al Marzouqi, who will be flying to Johannesburg on June 3 but does not know where he will be based.
In addition, he has to log into the Fifa website for almost two hours daily to answers questions and generally keep himself updated with the laws of the game.
With assistant referees given more powers, Al Marzouqi considered his job more difficult than the man in the middle. "Now it is not just spotting offside and raising the flag. We are responsible for so many decisions such as giving penalties, yellow cards and red cards. The assistant referee can help the referee in making decisions but his assistants cannot afford to make a mistake because there is no one to assist him," said Al Marzouqi who officiated at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 in addition to the Gulf Cup and Asian Cup competitions.
Al Marzouqi considers the Asian Cup tie in 2007 between Japan and South Korea as the most difficult match he has done so far. "It was fiercely competitive and played at a fast pace," he said. His most memorable match was the England-Brazil match during the opening of the new Wembley Stadium in 2006 in which he represented Asia.
Al Marzouqi is aware that referees come under fire from both players and spectators after being at the centre of controversy during a ProLeague match between Al Nasr and Al Ahli this season.
"Players should learn the rules of the game before they play. Don't concentrate on referee's decisions or his mistakes. They have to focus on their game," was his advise to players.
"Everybody has his own opinion. I welcome constructive criticism and respect all opinion," said Al Marzouqi, a qualified lawyer in deference to armchair critics.