Only seven minutes into the 2015 AFC Asian Cup quarter-final, the ball drops over the shoulder of Ali Mabkhout on the right edge of the penalty area.
In one movement the Emirati striker unleashes a sensational volley into the Japanese net and the UAE are in the lead. Mabkhout does not celebrate, out of respect for the passing of the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud earlier that day.
The epic encounter at Stadium Sydney in Australia would go into extra time and penalties, from which the UAE would emerge victorious and progress into the semifinal against the host nation.
The match remains arguably the high point of the UAE’s second “Golden Generation” of players raised by Mahdi Ali, and Mabkhout would end up the tournament’s top scorer.
Collectively and individually, things would never hit those heights again for all involved that day.
Except perhaps for Mabkhout.
Mahdi Ali would eventually depart his job as UAE head coach after the national team’s fortunes plateaued. UAE golden boy Omar Abdulrahman’s mooted move to a European team never happened and injuries have massively disrupted his career in recent years. Ahmed Khalil would be crowned 2015’s Asian Footballer of the Year but inconsistencies continued to plague him since as they have throughout his career.
All the while, Mabkhout has kept on producing the goods.
This season he has been simply unstoppable as he has led Al-Jazira to a major assault on the Arabian Gulf League title. Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Shabab Al-Ahli leaves the Pride of Abu Dhabi top of the table, two points ahead of Baniyas with seven matches left.
In the AGL’s list of top scorers, Mabkhout sits alone, with 17 goals from 19 matches. In second place, with 16, is his UAE national team colleague Fabio De Lima, the Emirati-nationalized Brazilian. But you’d have to go down all the way to 21st on the list, with five strikes, to find the next UAE-born player, Al-Jazira team-mate Khalfan Mubarak.
It is testament to Mabkhout’s caliber that he continues to mix it up with the best of the AGL’s foreign imports and still come out on top.
Apart from being plentiful, Mabkhout’s goals have been decisive.
In perhaps the most important match of the seasons so far, Mabkhout’s double ensured a 3-0 win for Al-Jazira at defending champions Sharjah. From challengers, the Abu Dhabi club were were now clear leaders and favorites.
On Feb. 5, Mabkout scored a hat trick in the 5-1 away win against Al-Dhafra. In Al-Jazira’s next match, the comprehensive 6-0 win at Ittihad Kalba, he remarkably repeated the feat with another treble. From Friday, Jan. 29, he scored in six straight matches, until the run was needed on Saturday.
Apart from his goals, Mabkhout’s leadership qualities have grown year on year, and his understanding with the gifted Mubarak is one of the most promising in Emirati football, both at domestic and international level.
An AGL title this season would rank among Mabkhout’s greatest achievements, paving the way for another assault on the AFC Champions League next year. He already has two league titles to his name, in the 2010-11 and 2016-17 seasons, and President’s Cup winners medals in 2011 and 2012.
At international level he, like his young teammates, caught the eye at the 2012 London Olympics, won the 2013 Gulf Cup, and came to the world’s attention with a stunning 2015 AFC Asian Cup. In the latter two, he finished as tournament top scorer with five goals.
In the aftermath of their heroics in Australia, interest in Mabkhout and Abdulrahman hit a peak, with the Al-Jazira striker linked with a move to Germany.
It never materialized, as it never did for Abdulrahman either. With Mabkhout turning 31 later this year, it unlikely it ever will, and for player and fans perhaps that is no bad thing.
But Mabkhout continues to excel at home, and should he steer Al-Jazira to what is looking like an increasingly likely AGL title this season, there would still be the little matter of attempting to steer the UAE to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. It will be a tall order.
One thing is for certain, if the UAE are to stand any chance at all of qualifying for the second time ever, and first time since 1990, to football’s biggest stage, they will need their talisman firing on all cylinders. Just as he has been all season.