Record-breaking Mabkhout has Socceroos in his sights

  • UAE take on Australia in the AFC play-off in qualifying for Qatar 2022

  • Mabkhout has more international goals to his name than all Australian squad combined

  • He is hoping to repeat his 2019 Asian Cup heroics against the Socceroos

On Tuesday 7 June, attention will turn to the clash between UAE and Australia in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) play-off for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. Australia boast a team drawn from leagues in almost every corner of the world, while their Emirati counterparts all compete in their domestic championship.

Nevertheless, there is one UAE player who, despite his unassuming demeanour, has alone scored more goals for his country than all Tuesday’s opponents combined. In fact, he has more international goals than any current player except for Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Ali Mabkhout has faced the Socceroos many times throughout his long international career and has also had some memorable experiences in the country. On 11 January 2015, he opened his Asian Cup account in Canberra with two goals against Qatar.

Four days later, the striker wrote himself into the tournament’s hall of fame when he scored the fastest goal in the competition’s history – against Bahrain after just 14 seconds. In Sydney, Mabkhout scored yet another historic goal, the strike against Japan that helped The Whites reach only their second ever Asian Cup semi-final and first outside the UAE.

However, the player’s first outing against the Australians was one to forget, with UAE losing by two goals. That said, the prolific marksman got a measure of consolation by scoring a goal in the third-place play-off, which saw him finish the Asian Cup as top scorer - the first Emirati to attain this honour.

Seven years on, the 31-year-old still remembers the magical moments from 2015 when he truly announced himself to Asian fans, telling FIFA+: “Australia 2015 was the first time many of us participated in a tournament of this magnitude. Despite this, we were united as a squad under the stewardship of coach Mahdi Ali, who managed us for both the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2009 and the 2012 London Olympics.

“We had no pressure going into the tournament – just a desire to showcase our capabilities, which, to a large extent, we succeeded in doing. This experience gave us all the confidence to push on in our careers, whether it be for club or country.

“In the semi-final we faced a strong Australian team playing in front of its home fans, which was a tough test. We played 120 minutes against Japan a few days prior to that match, unlike the Australians, who only played 90. These small factors make all the difference in knockout games, especially in tournaments of this size, so when we played Australia at home in 2019 it was ours for the taking.”

In the end, the victory was down to the prolific striker’s instinct, with the Emirati anticipating a poor back-pass by Milos Degenek and dribbling past the hapless Mathew Ryan in goal to slot the winning quarter-final goal at the iconic Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium.

The strike was Mabkhout’s fourth of that tournament, during which he further consolidated his status as one of the best Asian strikers of his generation, finishing second in the race for the golden boot. His cumulative total of nine goals places him third in the list of all-time Asian Cup top scorers, trailing only Ali Daei (14) and Lee Dong-gook (10).

Asked about this, the Abu Dhabi native said: “On a personal level, I’m happy with my performances in both 2015 and 2019. The first tournament will always be special due to winning the golden boot and announcing myself to the Asian fans, but 2019 was a different experience altogether what with it taking place at home, despite the disappointing ending. Reaching the semi-final twice in a row will forever be part of our history.”

AL AIN, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 25:  Ali Ahmed Mabkhout of United Arab Emirates celebrates with his teammates after he scores his sides first goal during the AFC Asian Cup quarter final match between United Arab Emirates and Australia at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium on January 25, 2019 in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Mabkhout feels that one win apiece in Asian Cup fixtures for UAE and Australia shows how little separates the teams, although he is also clear on what Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s squad needs to do if it is to book its place in Qatar.

“I think the two teams are evenly matched, based on close matches in recent years and the fact that we both finished third in our respective groups. Therefore, we’ll have to focus and avoid any mistakes.

“Being just 180 minutes away from a World Cup is an opportunity that doesn't come around too often. Our fate is in our own hands, so we’re not relying on other results to go our way. Our immediate focus is on the upcoming Australia match, and we’ll give it our all. Hopefully luck will be on our side.”

Al Abyad’s journey to this point, just two games away from qualifying for a World Cup, saw Mabkhout break UAE’s all-time scoring record – an honour previously held by Adnan Al-Talyani with 52 goals – when he bagged a hat-trick against Indonesia back in October 2019.

Al-Talyani has always been the benchmark for any Emirati striker, so naturally the more Mabkhout scored for Al Abayad, the more comparisons the two strikers drew. The only dream that still alludes Mabkhout is leading his team to a World Cup, a feat Al- Talyani achieved when he scored the goal that took the team to Italy 1990 for their first and only appearance in the biggest competition of all.

Mabkhout concluded our chat by saying: “I don’t like comparisons. Regardless of the numbers, Adnan Al-Talyani will always be a historic name in Emirati football. If I manage to replicate what he did and lead the team to a World Cup, I’ll be happy. If another player scores and we qualify, great.

“We’re all hoping to represent the Emirates in a tournament as prestigious as the World Cup. This was also the aim for Adnan and his colleagues at that time, and nothing has changed for us.”

DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 27: Ali Mabkhout of United Arab Emirates poses during the United Arab Emirates team presentation prior to the FIFA Arab Cup Qatar 2021 at Wyndham Doha West Bay on November 27, 2021 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Michael Regan - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)