ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT // The wait is finally over. The UAE will take to the field tonight for their first game of the Under 20 World Cup against South Africa. Despite the expectations of a nation yearning for success after the debacle of the senior side in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, the youngsters are not feeling any pressure. For Hamdan al Kamali, the captain of the side, the World Cup is their farewell party as a youth team before they graduate to the senior squad. They are in the mood to celebrate.
"This side has been together for a long time," said the Al Wahda defender, one of the UAE's best hopes of playing club football in Europe. "This World Cup is our last tournament as a youth team and we want to make it memorable. After this, I don't know when we will all be together again. We will be playing in the 2012 Olympics hopefully and someone of us will be with the national team. "So we want to do something special before we part. We have prepared well for the tournament and played against a couple of teams from Africa during the camp in Turkey.
"Though we lost the games, I think we gained a lot of experience for the first game against South Africa. We feel ready and hopefully we will be able to put up a good performance and go far in this tournament." The UAE are the only continental champions in Group F and are favourites to make the second round; a feat they have achieved in their last two World Cup appearances in 1997 and 2003. But the South Africans cannot be taken lightly.
Returning to the youth World Cup for the first time since 1997, the Bafana were impressive at the African Youth Championship, with victories over Ivory Coast and Nigeria on their way to the semi-finals. They have potentially one of the biggest stars of the tournament in Kermit Erasmus, the 19-year-old Feyenoord prodigy who has been compared to Romario, the Brazil legend. The UAE do not lack star quality either, especially with al Kamali and Ahmed Khalil - Asia's best youth player - in their ranks. And that gives Mahdi Ali, the coach, cause for optimism.
"I have watched the South African team," he said. "Most recently during their friendly in Germany. "They are a good team with lots of good players in terms of technical capacity, particularly in the midfield. But they also have the physical strength and speed to match any side in this tournament. We are desperately waiting for the World Cup to start, especially since we did not have much luck in our recent friendly games.
"I assure the media and fans that those defeats were not a true reflection of our abilities. You will see the real quality of this side over the coming days." firstname.lastname@example.org UAE v South Africa, KO 8.45pm, ART Sport 4, Abu Dhabi Sports 3