Going into the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, Omar Abdulrahman was the UAE’s most recognisable face, and he boosted his reputation as one of Asia’s finest players with a string of top performances Down Under, but arguably the biggest winner from the team’s run to the semi-finals was the then 25-year-old Mabkhout.
The rising forward had endured a frustrating campaign three years earlier when he played all three games for the UAE at the 2012 London Olympics, but failed to find the back of the net. The AFC Asian Cup provided him with a golden chance to bounce back and show what he was all about.
“We had a stable set up,” reflects Mabkhout on the 2015 team that featured 12 players from those who travelled to London 2012. “We played together for over six years, coming through the various age groups as a team under coach Mahdi Ali, so that was an important factor in us doing so well in Australia 2015.”
Pitted against Qatar, Bahrain and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Whites started the tournament with a bang, and so did Mabkhout. After going behind in the first half, the UAE struck back with fury, putting four goals past their neighbours as Mabkhout opened his continental account with a brace.
The penalty shoot-out defeat to Saudi Arabia in the 1996 final was in fact the last time the UAE managed to progress beyond the group stage, and in Canberra they had a chance to end that poor run with a game to spare should they overcome Bahrain.
Mabkhout wasted no time in ensuring the Whites would go through, as he dashed past his marker to control Abdulrahman’s through ball and finish from a narrow angle after just 14 seconds. His third goal of the competition earned the UAE’s No 7 a place in the Guinness World Records as the fastest-ever goal scored in an AFC Asian Cup.
Bahrain equalised through Jaycee John, and the UAE needed a bit of luck as Bahrain defender Mohamed Husain put one past his own goalkeeper to give Mabkhout and co the all-important three points driving them into the quarter-finals despite losing the final game 1-0 to IR Iran.
Finishing second in the group meant the UAE were handed the monumental challenge of facing reigning champions Japan. It was a game that would come to boost Mabkhout’s popularity not only in the UAE, but across the continent, and more so in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
The Al Jazira forward was again in hot form, and the Samurai Blue defenders struggled to cope with his pace and intelligent movement. Within just seven minutes, Mabkhout had moved into space behind the Japan backline to latch onto an Abdulrahman chipped pass and fire in the half-volley from a tight angle to put the UAE in front.
A muted celebration followed what was one of the most important goals in his team’s history.
“It was a sad day for our neighbours in Saudi Arabia who had lost their king, so I did not want to celebrate,” explains Mabkhout.
The gesture was received with wide acclaim from the Saudis.
Back on the pitch, Gaku Shibasaki’s equaliser could only delay the UAE’s celebrations as starmen Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda both missed in the penalty shootout while Mabkhout converted his spot-kick and the Whites booked their place in the final four for just the second time in their history.
An impressive campaign was finally brought to an end by the hosts as goals from Trent Sainsbury and Jason Davidson went unanswered to send the UAE into a third-place play-off against Iraq.
“Finishing third wasn’t our ambition, but after losing the semi-final, we wanted to at least win bronze,” says Mabkhout.
Bronze was the reward for the team after they overcame the 2007 champions 3-2 and there was also individual consolation for Mabkhout, whose winning goal meant he became the first-ever Emirati to be crowned the AFC Asian Cup’s top goal scorer.
“Iraq were a difficult opponent to face, but we managed to get the win and it was overall a very good campaign for us,” he reflects. “We learned a lot from the experience, and that should hopefully help us in 2019.”
Six months from now, Mabkhout and co face a different challenge when they host the continental competition, and he has no qualms about their objectives this time around.
“Winning the 2019 title will be a success, anything other than first place would be considered a failure. We would not be satisfied with second place.”
Two of Mabkhout’s 2015 teammates; Khalil and Abdulrahman went on to win the AFC Footballer of the Year award in 2015 and 2016 respectively, but he insists that team glory comes before individual honours for him.
“I would much rather lead the UAE to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup than be named the Best Player in Asia."
A selfless statement from a man whose knack for breaking records has time and again helped club and country reach unprecedented heights.