Sunday 24 May 2009 witnessed a new chapter written in the long and illustrious history of United Arab Emirates' club Al Ahli. The popular and respected Dubai outfit won the domestic league, and with it the honour of being the first UAE side to participate in the FIFA Club World Cup, due to be held on home soil later this year.
Al Ahli's final-day 3-1 triumph over neighbours and reigning champions Al Shabab staved off a strong challenge from Al Jazira, whose 4-1 win over Ajman was to no avail, with the one-point margin going into the final day proving to be a bridge too far. The top three teams in the league - Ahli, Jazira and Al Ain - qualify automatically for the AFC Champions League, while Al Wahda enter the preliminary play-offs.
Al Ahli and Al Jazira comfortably led the charge to become the first winners of the inaugural rebadged UAE Football League, with 11 points separating second and third. At the other end of the spectrum, relegation was settled with Al Sharjah guaranteeing survival by securing a draw at Al Dhafra that also resulted in Al Shaab joining Khaleej in dropping to the second tier.
Al Ahli have been moulded into a real force by coach Ivan Hasek, the legendary former Czech international. Hasek tasted success with the club early on, winning the President's Cup last year followed by the Super Cup at the start of this season.
Skipper of the Czechoslovakia team at the 1990 FIFA World Cup™, Hasek has been working towards this moment since arriving at the club in December 2007. The normally ice cool 45-year-old was unable to contain his jubilation at the final whistle at the Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai. "From the first moment I came here, it was to win," said an ebullient Hasek, "not for second place. It was not easy, Jazira were very good, Al Ain also."
Hasek was just one of many caught up in the emotion, with several players shedding a tear of happiness at the final whistle, as celebrations for the fifth domestic title, but first since 2006, kicked off in style. If nerves were frayed before kick-off, they were soon eased when Egyptian maestro Hosny Abd Rabo gave Al Ahli an advantage after seven minutes before prolific Brazilian striker Bare doubled the lead just three minutes later.
With Jazira winning easily at Ajman, there was no room for error, and after the bright beginning there was just a hint that the party may be spoiled with Faisal Khalil slicing a free-kick into his own net. Fears were further allayed as Ali Abbas scored with a stunning free-kick in first-half injury-time to halt any resistance from Shabab, as the home side turned on a slick second-half display befitting champions.
The club can now look forward to representing their nation with pride as the United Arab Emirates hosts the FIFA Club World Cup for the first time. To be played in Abu Dhabi, a couple of hours up the highway from their Dubai home, Al Ahli qualify as representative of the host nation.
Already set to compete in the UAE in December are CONCACAF champions, Mexico's Atlante, and Oceania title-holders, New Zealand's Auckland City. A fourth participant will be confirmed later this week as Barcelona and current FIFA Club World Cup champions Manchester United square off in the UEFA Champions League final.
Being the first UAE club to appear in the competition sees Al Ahli arguably matching the feat of Al Ain, who won the inaugural AFC Champions League in 2003. Al Ahli will also be hopeful of challenging the world's best if the recent improvement under Hasek continues unabated. The Czech tactician recruited wisely to strengthen the spine of the team through the addition of experienced Egyptian defensive midfielder Hosny and giant Brazilian striker Bare, whose goalscoring feats in the J.League were phenomenal.
Given Hasek's experience at the top level there will be no illusions about the size of the task that lies ahead. "The players have been excellent all season, said Hasek. "The Club World Cup was a big motivation, now we have more work to do for the future."