Ali Saleh: Meet the half-Scottish 'Golden Boy' starring for UAE

Ali Saleh
Ali Saleh was voted the UAE Pro League's 'Golden Boy' - its best young player - last season

Wearing bright red tartan shorts and a wide grin, Ali Saleh nods approvingly at the iPad screen in front of him.

He has just watched Archie Gemmill slalom through the Netherlands defence and is now getting acquainted with James McFadden's howitzer against France in 2007. The 19-year-old may have university classes to attend later but this is an equally important education: Scottish Football 101.

Currently considered one of the hottest prospects in the Middle East, Saleh is a skilful, fearless winger for Dubai-based club Al Wasl. He made his first-team debut at 16 and was voted the UAE Pro League's 'Golden Boy' - its best young player - last season. He is also half-Scottish.

Saleh's father is Emirati and he was born and raised in Dubai but his roots extend 3,600 miles north west of the Gulf. His mother, like his grandparents, is from Edinburgh, and Scotland is a country Saleh knows well.

"Until the age of 12, I think I had only ever been to the UAE and Scotland," Saleh tells BBC Scotland at a coffee shop in Dubai. "My mum always felt it was important to keep us connected with Scotland so she took us there on holiday every year. There is definitely a picture somewhere of me wearing a kilt.

"It was - and still is - always nice to go back and see my family in Scotland. I always loved that you could actually play football outside in the summer. In Dubai, we never played because it was too hot but in Scotland my brother and I would go and play at the park for hours.

"I have always felt really lucky to be part of these two different worlds. I love the UAE but I also love Scotland because it's half of who I am."

'My grandad warned me not to score against Hibs'

Saleh played against Hibs in January
Saleh played against Hibs in January

Fiercely proud of his mixed heritage, Saleh has long felt an affinity for Scottish football thanks to his grandparents. It may not be quite as unlikely as a UAE-Scotland union but his granddad is a Hibernian fan while his grandmother supports Hearts.

"I'm amazed they don't have more problems at home," Saleh laughs. "I've never been to Easter Road or Tynecastle because I always visit Scotland in the summer but Al Wasl played a friendly against Hibs in Dubai last year and that was a really nice moment for me. I remember my grandad phoning me up before the game and saying 'you'd better not score'.

"But they are both so supportive; I know my grandad goes around telling everyone that his grandson is a professional footballer in Dubai - I'm sure he gets some funny looks."

As well as the Hibs-Hearts rivalry, Saleh is also familiar with the Old Firm and the exploits of the Scotland national team, with Scott McTominay and Andrew Robertson among the players whose reputation has reached him in the UAE.

And while Scottish football doesn't always get a great deal of airtime in the region, one viral video did manage to make an impression in the Middle East. "That phone-in when the Hearts fan is talking about Antti Niemi playing for Scotland was amazing - I couldn't stop laughing. It still goes around on social media sometimes here," Saleh smiles.

'Maybe we could play Scotland at the World Cup'

Ali Saleh
Saleh scored on his competitive debut for UAE earlier this year

The Emirati teenager's only other exposure to Scottish football fans has been through the enthusiastic, and always vocal, support of his mum. "She has always been my biggest fan. As a kid, she would yell so loud to cheer me on and if anyone would tackle me she'd get angry. Now she mainly just watches me on TV so she can shout as much as she likes."

The volume in the Saleh house was really cranked up this October when, on the same day Scotland were thrashed 4-0 by Russia, Bert van Marwijk gave the winger his competitive debut for the UAE. In front of 43,000 fans in Kuala Lumpur, Saleh helped the UAE to a 2-1 victory over Malaysia.

"I love Scotland but I always knew I wanted to play international football for the UAE," he says. "It's where I grew up, it's the place I call home. I actually scored on my debut, a friendly against Sri Lanka, but the game against Malaysia was much bigger as it was a World Cup qualifier.

"My dad has told me about when the UAE qualified for the 1990 World Cup and I really hope we can do it again. It would be such a huge thing for the country, especially as the next World Cup will be here in the Gulf. Hopefully we will make it. Maybe we could end up playing Scotland."

'I'd love to play in Scotland'

Remarkably for a 19-year-old, Saleh is currently in his fifth season with Al Wasl. In his early years at the club's academy, Diego Maradona was the first-team manager but it was fellow Argentine Gabriel Calderon who eventually gave him his debut on his 16th birthday. The following day, he had a chemistry exam. "Talk about crashing back down to earth," he says.

Al Wasl have continued to support Saleh through his studies and now he is taking a degree in International Relations at the American University of Dubai.

What other achievements await in the future remains to be seen but ultimately he is aiming to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Mo Salah and Riyad Mahrez by making name for himself as a successful Arab player in Europe.

"Obviously the English Premier League is the dream of most football players; I'd love to play there one day. But I'd love to play in Scotland, too - it's a big league with some huge teams and very passionate fans. For players in the Gulf I think playing in Europe is always the goal."

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