Football Features

Al Jazira Club World Cup preview: A ‘Total Football’ project who nearly embarrassed Real Madrid

By Ben Green

Published: 16:50, 2 February 2022

Al Jazira make their second appearance in the Club World Cup this week, looking to improve upon their fourth-placed finish in 2017.

The annual tournament pits the six ‘best’ teams from six different continents across the world, plus the league champions from the host nation (in this case United Arab Emirates). Al Jazira fall into the latter category as winners of the 2020/21 UAE Pro League.

In the first round this Thursday, the Abu Dhabi-based side face competition debutants AS Pirae, who were nominated by the Oceania Football Confederation after Auckland City’s withdrawal. Up for grabs is a game against Al Hilal in the next phase.

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Five things to know about Al Jazira

  • Manager: Marcel Keizer. The Dutchman is currently on his second tour of duty for The Spider, having previously held the reins in 2018. He’s also managed Ajax and Sporting CP, winning a domestic cup double with the latter in 2018/19.
  • Captain: Ali Khaseif. The 34-year-old has been a regular between the sticks for Al Jazira since joining from Al-Fujairah in 2005. In the 2012 London Olympics, Khaseif was in goal for UAE as they lost 3-1 to Team GB and were narrowly beaten by Uruguay.
  • Chairman: Mansour Al Nahyan, also known as Sheikh Mansour. The Emirati is owner of the Abu Dhabi United Group, famous for acquiring Manchester City in 2008 and turning the club into a European powerhouse, so far winning five Premier League titles under his ownership. 
  • Most recent Club World Cup finish: 4th (2017)
  • Team stat: Al Jazira are the UAE Pro League’s second-most successful club since the 2010s (three titles), behind only the most-decorated side ever in the competition Al Ain (four titles in that timeframe).

Who is Al Jazira’s best player?

Al Jazira have a number of quality players, not least skipper and 55-capped Ali Khaseif, tricky forward Khalfan Mubarak, former Sporting and Lille attacker Abdoulay Diaby and Joao Victor, who was turning out for Wolfsburg not too long ago.

Arguably the pick of the bunch is Ali Mabkhout. The 101-time UAE international top-scored for Al Jazira during their title-winning 2020/21. He finished on 25 goals, five more than Golden Boot runner-up Fabio Lima of Al Wasl, and seven more than Baniyas’ Joao Pedro.

His record haul consolidated his position as third in the competition’s all-time goalscoring charts as he moved ahead of Mohammad Omar. The 31-year-old will now be eyeing up Fahad Khamees’ total of 176, and he currently sits 34 below the Al Wasl legend on 142, making it plausible to close the gap in the coming seasons.

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Sheikh Mansour’s nod to ‘Total Football’?

City’s owner Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan made his first venture in the sport during the noughties when he acquired Al Jazira. Across his last five appointments, stretching back to 2015 — a year before Pep Guardiola arrived at the Etihad — he has appointed five Dutch coaches, three of whom have links to Ajax.

Around the same time Guardiola was named City boss in 2016, Al Jazira were coached by a certain Henk ten Cate. Sound familiar? Well, he should. Ten Cate is a product of Ajax’s academy and managed the club between 2006 and 2007, but his most notable impression on the game has come as a No.2.

Ten Cate was Frank Rijkaard’s assistant at Barcelona between 2003 and 2006, and then went to Chelsea in 2007/08. But it is at Camp Nou where his tactical nous really came to the fore; the Catalan club won a Champions League and La Liga double in 2005/06, with Ten Cate lauded “the strategist of the team”.

After Ten Cate’s stint with Al Jazira between 2015 and 2018 — where he won the 2016/17 UAE Pro League — current boss Keizer came in for his first tenure. However, just a few months after his appointment he jumped ship when the opportunity to manage Sporting CP surfaced, ending a brief four-month acquaintanceship.

Next up came Damien Hertog and Jurgen Streppel, the latter of whom is currently managing Roda JC Kerkrade in the Dutch second tier, before Keizer returned, making that five successive appointments for managers from the Netherlands, and 10 out of Al Jazira’s 21 permanent appointments since the turn of the century.

Pure coincidence, or is Sheikh Mansour perhaps trying to replicate a model working so well in the north west of England at the minute? Guardiola is a tactician sculpted by Cruyffian principles, having worked under the great man at Barca. Meanwhile, Keizer is the nephew of Ajax legend Piet Keizer, a teammate of Johan during the golden era of ‘Total Football’ in Amsterdam.

Two men (Guardiola and Keizer) who have an indelible link to Cruyff and the Dutchman’s Holy Grail of tactical ingenuity. It may yet be a coincidence that Sheikh Mansour has two managers steeped in Cruyffian DNA at the helm of two of his biggest clubs, or maybe it is all part of a wider plan.

A Real scare

During Al Jazira’s debut appearance in the competition in 2017, Ten Cate led a relatively inexperienced side to an improbable fourth-placed finish, first eliminating New Zealand’s Auckland City 1-0 before knocking out Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds by an identical scoreline.

However, they truly rose to prominence when the draw pitted them against giants Real Madrid in the semi-finals. Khaseif played like a man possessed between the sticks and deservedly earned the man-of-the-match award for his efforts, with the unfancied team from Abu Dhabi 1-0 up at half-time through Romarinho.

They were in dreamland when Mbark Boussoufa made it 2-0 after the restart, but hopes of an upset were shattered when the Moroccan was flagged offside and VAR chalked it off. Khaseif was then forced to withdraw through injury and usual suspects Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale went on to break hearts.

“We want to prove that reaching the semi-finals in 2017 wasn’t a fluke,” current star Abdulla Ramadan told

“For me and my team-mates who did not start games or were not with the team five years ago, this is an opportunity and a challenge to show that we can do just as well as our colleagues did in 2017.”

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