The phrase “in the middle of nowhere” could have been invented for the spot in the desert where the Al Ain Local Organising Committee whisked Group E team delegations for dinner on Sunday. Representatives from the Ivory Coast, Mexico and the Republic of Ireland, including several players, made the trip out to dine in the dunes.
Eighty kilometres along the Al Ain to Abu Dhabi road, then a short four -wheel drive hop into the dunes, and some thirty players from Ivory Coast and Mexico, accompanied by their staff, arrived in a desert paradise; a restaurant called Alkatem, with dance floors and an impressive sound system.
Welcomed by traditional Emirates chants, the youngsters seemed to enjoy being immersed in local culture, especially as they have been more accustomed to spending time in their hotel rooms and on the training pitch recently. “It was fantastic. We rocked the dunes,” joked one Ivory Coast player by the end of an unforgettable evening. The encounter with camels was a particular highlight, a moment of great mirth as the Mexicans took dozens of photos of each other laughing in the company of these strange beasts. Soon, everybody was sitting on the floor on cushions, eating some of the nation’s traditional dishes such as tikka, hameis, mjpows, kebabs, lamb chops and other fare. Gradually, the Mexico and Ivory Coast parties began to relax after their gruelling match the previous day.
Ivory Coast coach Mama Ouattara cajoled his players: “You see Adolphe (ed: Tohoua), you didn’t even want to come and now you’re having a great time. It’s fun isn’t it?” The Eléphanteaux Juniors leading goalscorer nodded agreeably in concession. The laughter was becoming more relaxed - and the evening had only just begun.
troop of traditional singers took centre stage, performing songs such as Al Aliyah, an ode to newly-weds. The hosts then invited the players to dance with a “Yalah, yalah!” (here we go!). The Mexicans set aside their disappointment from the previous day to take the initiative on the dance floor. It was a carnival atmosphere by now, and the Ivory Coast party were not far behind - Ouattara the first to try his hand on the dance floor.
Mexico and Ivory Coast united in dance
The Ivory Coast players were highly amused at the sight of their coach strutting his stuff, and joined the Mexicans on the dancefloor for an improvised competition to see who could pull of the most original move. Cameras flashed and camcorders recorded the moment for posterity. Ivory Coast striker François Zoko was just one who enjoyed the moment: “It was really great!”, he beamed before donning an Emirates djellabah gown, much to the delight of his team-mates. “We had a great time with the Mexicans. On the pitch we want to beat each other, but when the match is over we are all as one,” explained Arouna Kone, scorer of the decisive penalty against the Mexico.
Ivory Coast senior team coach Robert Nouzaret, out in the UAE to visit the youth side, appreciated the opportunity to relax and indulge in some team bonding. Even if he did not venture onto the dance floor with the players, the Frenchman could not have failed to appreciate the atmosphere among his staff. The Ivory Coast party, now in full flow, invited two young ladies who were passing by their table to join them. “There’s plenty of room,” one of them quipped.
And so the evening wore on in a wonderful atmosphere, interspersed with local delicacies, frenzied dancing and misguided attempts to mount camels. The festivities finally ended with two belly dancers setting the dance floor alight and then it was time to go. Neither side has a match on Monday, but it is back to business soon after. On Tuesday, the Africans meet Republic of Ireland in a contest for top spot in the group, while Mexico fight for their survival against Saudi Arabia.
uffice to say, this little soirée in the desert may have aided the players’ recuperation. “It was fantastic and will certainly give us something to talk about in our hotel rooms. It has opened our eyes,” Kone concluded, a wide grin lighting up his face.