Al Ain take pride in history-making victory 

  • Al Ain eliminate River Plate and progress to the final

  • After a 2-2 draw, the Emiratis win in a penalty shoot-out

  • Ismail Ahmed describes reaching the final as “a sweet dream”

It was a memorable evening for all those who gathered at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium to watch the semi-final between UAE’s Al Ain and Argentina’s River Plate. What made the game so enthralling were the four goals the teams shared between them in regulation time. The subsequent penalties only added to the evening’s drama, which culminated in Al Ain becoming the first UAE club to grace the final of this global tournament.

Almost everyone expected the Copa Libertadores holders and representatives of South America to prevail, but Zoran Mamic's side were able to make up for any differences in individual skill with a wonderful team spirit, particularly in defence. In that regard, Ismail Ahmed, the towering defender who stood resolute in the face of every onslaught, deserves special praise.

Speaking to after the match, Ismail described the feeling among the team: “It’s certainly the realisation of a big dream. We’re proud of this achievement, but the ultimate goal of winning this title still remains.”

He then added: “It wasn’t easy for us to reach the final. In the opener we played for 120 minutes, then we had a big game against Esperance. And this was the third match in a very short space of time. Despite this, our players performed extremely well in all three games, which is not easy to do.”

It appears that Al Ain are progressing through this competition completely unfazed by the reputation of their opponents, with Ismail seeing little difference between River Plate and the other teams. “River are a powerful club. We all know about Latin American football and its characteristics. They’re good at keeping possession and have great technical skills, but we didn’t notice a big difference between their level and that of the other teams.”

Asked how he felt during the shoot-out, the player replied. “Everyone knows there’s a lot of luck involved, although that tends to even itself out. Of course, the penalty-takers have to be utterly focused, which was something we players really emphasised before the shoot-out.”

“We weren’t worried at all because we knew that, even if we’d lost, our fans would still have been happy with our performance.”

Final Dream Al Ain will quickly have to turn the page on their triumph over River and focus on the final. For Ismail, preparation is the key to achieving a good result in the decider. “The final has a different atmosphere and a different opponent. We’ll prepare well for it and give our all to win the game.”

Having defeated the champions of Oceania, Africa and South America, Al Ain no longer fear anyone. “Regardless of whether we play Real Madrid or Kashima in the final, it’ll be 11 versus 11,” he insisted.

“At this level, there’s no big and small teams. The game itself will ultimately decide matters, and the morale of the players is the most important thing. I therefore thank my team-mates for all their hard work during the 120 minutes.”

As someone in the twilight of his career, Ismail Ahmed considers himself very lucky to be participating in this global tournament. “I’m extremely proud to play in a competition like the Club World Cup at the age of 35. I’ve done everything I could in this competition and hopefully have made Al Ain and all of UAE football proud.”

Asked if he had a message for the fans as we wound up our interview, Ismail said: “The fans were great. They gave us so much support throughout the 120 minutes and shoot-out. What we’ve achieved so far was not easy at all.”

AL AIN, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - DECEMBER 18:  Ismail Ahmed of Al Ain competes for a header with Lucas Pratto of River Plate during the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2018 Semi Final Match between River Plate and Al Ain at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium on December 18, 2018 in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by David Ramos - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)