Rivalry is the essence of football, with the most compelling and captivating contests coloring the game. Without it there would be no competitive context, and maybe no competitiveness at all. That common thread that be traced all the way through the sport, and on Thursday the Gulf’s predominant footballing rivalry will resume for another episode.
Saudi Arabia will host the UAE in a crucial World Cup qualifier this week, with the two nations setting their sights on top-spot in the AFC’s Group A standings. But increasingly, with every clash, this fixture, between these two teams, is about more than just points and league position. This is now the rivalry that defines Arabian football.
Of course, such competition between the two countries is hardly anything new, but in recent years the contest has taken on an extra dimension - and a global relevance. In international terms, it might not be at the level of Argentina v Brazil or England v Germany, but with football still developing in the Gulf there is now at least a degree of worldwide interest when Saudi Arabia and the UAE clash.
That could have something to do with their recent matches at major international tournaments - most notably the 2014 Gulf Cup, when the UAE fought back from two goals down, only for Saudi Arabia to emerge 3-2 winners - and with a place in the competition’s final. That result only stoked what has become a hotly-contested rivalry in recent times.
Saudi Arabia boast an international pedigree that the UAE cannot currently claim, with the Gulf nation counting four World Cup finals appearances on their resume. In contrast, the UAE have yet to make their debut at football’s biggest and most heralded jamboree. But that’s not to say that they are necessarily considered the fall guy of the rivalry between the two nations.
At the Asian Cup earlier this year Mahdi Ali’s UAE side made quite the statement, finishing the competition in third place following a thrilling run deep into the latter stages. Of all the teams that gathered in Australia for the tournament, the UAE were arguably the most entertaining and dynamic - putting down a marker in their development as a true football nation with their quarter-final victory over international tournament veterans Japan.
Indeed, the UAE’s upward arc with Ali in charge has been dramatic - with the 2013 Gulf Cup triumph still considered something of a coming out party for the country’s football programme. That progression would now culminate with qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Of course, the resilience of such a mercurial sporting identity will be tested against the combativeness of rivalry on Thursday. If Ali’s side are to leave Riyadh with a positive result they must have steadfast faith in their ideology, with players like Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout the headline-grabbing kingpins of such a system. In the heat of battle though, that personality might be somewhat lost.
Even within the spectrum of club football, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the UAE is a lively one - with Al Hilal and Al Ahli currently midway through an AFC Champions League semi-final tie. This rivalry, between two countries competing something of a footballing arms race, spans more than just the international arena - although that is where Thursday’s match will be contested.
The UAE lost their place at the top of Group A on Monday following the announcement of sanctions handed out against Malaysia as punishment for recent during a World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia. The consequent award of the win to Bert van Marwijk’s team after the forfeit of the match at the Shah Alam Stadium only serves to give a rivalry which grows fiercer with every meeting an even sharper edge. Ali’s side have the chance to reclaim top-spot, and so much more, in Jeddah.