You would have to go back to the second half of the 1970s for the last time Dubai rivals Shabab Al-Ahli (then known as Al-Ahli) and Al-Nasr were rivals for the top honors in UAE football, but when the two sides took to the pitch at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium earlier this month for the UAE President’s Cup final, there was a sense of nostalgia for more than one reason.
The majority of the 8,000 fans allowed into the stands for the first time since the start of the pandemic were probably too young to have witnessed that earlier rivalry, but they too knew how much was at stake as the two sides locked horns in a domestic cup final for the third time in 18 months.
In the last domestic final contested in the pre-pandemic UAE, an Alvaro Negredo-inspired Al-Nasr side beat their city rivals to win the 2020 Arabian Gulf Cup (UAE’s League Cup competition). The Spaniard marked the end of his time in Dubai with the fastest goal in the competition’s history inside seven seconds to help the UAE’s oldest club side to a 2-1 victory.
Negredo was not the only Spaniard to have left Dubai since then. Shabab Al-Ahli replaced its Spanish head coach Gerard Zaragoza with their former midfielder Mahdi Ali. The 56-year-old Ali grew up watching his beloved Red Knights clash with Al-Nasr year after year as he made his way through the ranks at Rashid Stadium. By the time Ali made his senior debut in 1983, Al-Ahli’s best days were behind them. His 15-year one-club career would produce only two cup titles, which may have motivated the man with his trademark red cap as he returned to the club as a manager 23 years after hanging his boots.
The return of Ali signaled a new dawn for the club. When the former national team boss — who had led his country to the heights of London 2012 Olympics and the semi-final of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup — was appointed in December 2020, Shabab Al-Ahli were lingering in mid-table, having won just three of their opening nine matches. By the end of the season, he had bettered his trophy tally as a player and lifted his side to finish third in the league, just seven points behind eventual champions Al-Jazira.
The master tactician steadied the ship by shoring up the defence. He called upon trusted lieutenants goalkeeper Majed Nasser, centre-back pairing Hamdan Al-Kamali and Waleed Abbas and full-backs Abdulaziz Haikal and Abdulaziz Sanqour, all of whom are over 30 and have previously played for Ali in the national team.
Experience at the back was mixed with youth and dynamism up front as 20-year-old Brazilian Igor Jesus led the line supported by 23-year-old Yahya Al-Ghassani and the free-roaming South American double act of Carlos Eduardo and Federico Cartabia.
The result was a magnificent upturn in fortunes for a club that has struggled ever since Al-Ahli, Al-Shabab and Dubai Club merged to form one club – Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai — in 2017.
First it was the Super Cup. Having won the President’s Cup in 2018-19, and with the following year’s competition cancelled due to the pandemic, Shabab Al-Ahli faced 2018-19 league champions Sharjah in the 2021 Super Cup in January. A late Mohammed Marzooq header was enough to deliver Ali’s first piece of silverware as a manager, but the story was just beginning.
As Shabab Al-Ahli continued its climb through the league table, by early April it was time to contest the Arabian Gulf Cup final. An opportunity to avenge last year’s loss to Al-Nasr beckoned, and unlike the previous encounter, there were no early goals; no goals at all in fact as both sides could only be separated by the penalty shootout. At Sharjah Stadium Ali’s men were well prepared and made it two out of two titles under his tutelage.
The cherry on top arrived last week as yet another Dubai derby clash brought fans back into the stadium for the first time since March 2020. A brace from the spot for former Valencia playmaker Cartabia sealed the win for Shabab Al-Ahli, as Mehdi Abeid’s goal was Al-Nasr’s only consolation.
Mahdi Ali’s next challenge? The one domestic title he is yet to conquer, the Arabian Gulf League. It’s a title that has only been won once by an Emirati coach when Sharjah’s Abdulaziz Al-Anbari achieved it in 2018-19. But Ali has proven he deserves the backing of his club’s board in the summer transfer window as he looks to take them to new heights.