The Lights of Rome documentary

UAE soccer documentary recounts the tale of the 1990 World Cup Discuss this article

© ITP Images

During a year in which Leicester City won the Premier League and the Chicago Cubs ended a 108-year World Series drought, a film about Emirati sporting brilliance against the odds couldn’t have been better timed.

The Lights of Rome documents the incredible feat of the UAE national team qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

It was the first, and so far only, time the team has reached the pinnacle of international football.

“It was a phenomenal achievement in such a short space of time,” says the film’s director, Ali Khaled. “All of the players were born before the formation of the union on December 1, 1971. They were born in different emirates, in different tribes, at a time when there was no federal government. Their youth was spent playing football on the streets.”

Despite these humble origins, the players went on to play on the same stage as football greats such as Italy’s Paolo Maldini, English striker Gary Lineker and Argentina legend Diego Maradona.

In reaching the World Cup, the UAE had achieved the unthinkable. Once there, though, reality struck. The team was eliminated from a group of death that featured Colombia, Yugoslavia and eventual champions West Germany.

“It was as tough as it gets,” says Khaled. “But the players did not disgrace themselves, and the goals they scored went down in history.”

Those goals included Khalid Ismail’s fine finish against West Germany. But the story goes deeper than a few high-profile weeks during the summer of 1990. The Lights of Rome also focuses on the much-overlooked qualifying campaign in which the UAE achieved the unthinkable.

“It remains for me a remarkable achievement in them just getting there,” says Khaled. “And that qualification is the far lesser-known story. At the beginning, no-one gave them a hope, not even the fans. The local media was very sceptical. I don’t think the players themselves even believed. But their legendary Brazilian coach, Mario Zagalo, was the only one who truly believed. And they managed to do it. They achieved it ahead of five other teams who were perceived to be better.”

Qualifying for the 1990 World Cup came down to a six-team final round, with all the games held over a 16-day period during October 1989 in Singapore. It went to the wire, with the UAE securing qualification with a 1-1 draw against South Korea.

Some 30 years on, many of the memories have faded. Whereas today the internet and social media make any shock result an immediate sensation, the reporting in the 1980s was much simpler. Yet there’s one moment that has resonated through time for many fans, and one that inspired the making of the film. It took place during the clash with South Korea that sent the UAE to Italy.

“One of the things people remember is the commentary,” says Khaled. “They remember the commentator was called Adnan Hamad, and he started crying, saying: ‘I can see the lights of Rome from here, I can see the lights of Rome’, which in Arabic is anwar Roma. And that’s what gave the film its name.”

But like any great underdog story, The Lights of Rome goes beyond its subject matter. It takes place amid a wider context of history and a rapidly-developing country.

Khaled adds: “I think the best stories transcend sport. In the US [during the world premiere at DOC NYC], a lot of people remarked that this is a lovely story about the players, but it also gave them a good idea what the country is like. A lot of people’s image of the Middle East is very generalised and stereotypical. Don’t get me wrong, the film is mostly about football, but within that it captures what the UAE has achieved in such a short space of time.”

The film from Abu Dhabi’s Image Nation was produced by Stevan Riley, the director behind the critically-acclaimed documentary Fire in Babylon, which tells the story of the record-breaking West Indies cricket teams of the 1970s and 80s. The Lights of Rome is ready to put the 1990 UAE football team in the same sporting hall of fame.
The Lights of Rome is out in cinemas across the UAE from December 1.

Three more sports films

Fire in Babylon

“The true story of the underdogs who ruled the world” is how this film was promoted, and it’s an apt description. The West Indies cricket teams of the 1970s and 80s were a force to be reckoned with, but their rise came out of nowhere. This documentary tells the story.

Formula 1

A remarkable documentary that charts Ayrton Senna’s journey from karting in his native Brazil through to his tragic death in Formula 1 at Imola. It captures Senna’s complex personality and stuns with its use of on-board footage. Even if you don’t like F1, this one will grab you.

Team Foxcatcher

Home video footage and interviews with those close to the protagonists make this an emotional watch. It recounts the paranoid and delusional breakdown of John E. du Pont, a philanthropist who funded a training programme for the US Olympic wrestling team, which results in the murder of David Schultz.

By Christopher Hough
Time Out Abu Dhabi,

Add your review/feedback

Subscribe to weekender newsletter



Explore by

Our favourite features