Team Wellington squandered a 3-0 lead before going down in a penalty shootout in the club's first game at the Club World Cup this morning.
As the only amateur side in the competition, the two-time ISPS Handa Premiership champions went in as heavy underdogs on their tournament debut but turned all that on its head at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium.
Mario Barcia, Aaron Clapham and Mario Ilich all scored in the first half to give the OFC Champions League winners a 3-0 lead before the home side got on the scoresheet just before halftime.
UAE club Al Ain struck back with two second half goals as the playoff game finished 3-3 after 90 minutes before winning the shootout 4-3. Team Wellington captain Justin Gulley missed the fifth and final penalty in a heartbreaking exit for the New Zealand side.
Al Ain will play Tunisian side ES Tunis in the quarter-finals with the winning facing Argentine giants River Plate.
Despite the disappointment of seeing a three-goal lead slip through his side's hands, Team Wellington coach Jose Figueira couldn't have been prouder.
"With the resources that we have and who we are, to put in a performance like that against a world-class team is sensational," he said.
"I put my players through hell and asked for a tremendous amount – today is probably the most that they've ever given. We took them to the wire and it wasn't to be today but, when the dust settles, I think they'll be hungry to come back to this stage and prove themselves again."
The New Zealand team opened the scoring early on in emphatic fashion, Argentinian Barcia registering an early contender for goal of the tournament with a superb long-range strike which arrowed into the top corner. Just four minutes later, Wellington doubled their lead when Andy Bevin played in Clapham, who coolly slotted into the bottom corner.
Al Ain thought they had reduced the deficit when Caio Fernandes found the net but the Brazilian's goal was disallowed by a Video Assistant Referee decision as a result of a foul on Hamish Watson in the build-up. Having survived that scare, the Oceania representatives were then in dreamland as they made it three, Ilich tapping in at the back post after a Henry Cameron corner was unwittingly flicked on by a defender.
With a shock exit now looking likely, Zoran Mamic's side grabbed one back just before the break through Tsukasa Shiotani to cap a goal-laden first half. Spurred on by the home crowd, Al Ain notched their second when a low ball across the box from Caio reached Tongo Doumbia, who found the roof of the net.
The hosts continued to pile on the pressure and grabbed their much-coveted equaliser on 85 minutes through a classy turn and volley from substitute Marcus Berg to take the game into extra time.
Gulley was last to step up and needed to score to keep his side in the competition but goalkeeper Khalid Eisa again pulled off an outstanding stop to spare Al Ain's blushes and break the hearts of both the Wellington players and a small but rowdy contingent of supporters who had travelled to the UAE.
"We made history on arrival and I'm just thankful that we could put in a performance that showed we deserved to be here," Figueira said.
"We pushed them all the way and I said right from the start that, as long as we got that as a performance, then I couldn't be any prouder and that's exactly how I'm feeling right now."