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No rest for London hopefuls

Al Kamali confident ahead of North Korea test today.

Ahmed Rizvi

On June 6, one day after finishing a long domestic season, the 24 members of the UAE Olympic team boarded a plane for Beijing, with little time to rest their aching or bruised limbs.

After 10 days of training in the Chinese capital, they have now flown to Pyongyang, where they are determined to subdue a strong North Korea side in the away leg of the second round of Asian qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics.

Forced to leave their BlackBerrys and other mobile devices in the private plane that ferried them to North Korea due to the country's regulations, the players have no communication with the outside world, including their families and friends back home. Their entire focus is on today's game and taking at least a draw back to the UAE for Thursday's second leg in Al Ain.

"I have complete confidence in ourselves as a team and I believe we are in a good position to even win this game," said Hamdan al Kamali, the Al Wahda defender and captain of the team. "The players have all forgotten about the tiring season, and our focus is on getting a positive result - a win or a draw, at least."

The UAE host North Korea in the return leg on Thursday and Mohammed Jaber, the Baniyas midfielder, suggested discretion could serve UAE better than valour.

"This is a very important game," he said. "But we have another game in Al Ain. So there is no need to get desperate or rush with things, because we all know they will not be an easy team to beat at home. If we can get a draw, we still have a good chance at home."

The UAE defeated Hong Kong 2-0 in their lone warm-up match for today's encounter. In the first round of qualifiers, they had drubbed Sri Lanka 7-1 and 3-0.

They were victorious in the last game they played against North Korea as well, with Mahdi Ali's team winning 9-8 on penalties in the Asian Games quarter-final last year. The UAE lost 1-0 in the final against Japan.

The North Koreans, however, will be a different proposition at home. They started their preparations for this match in January, much earlier than the Emiratis. While the UAE side were slugging it out in the Pro League, the North Koreans were preparing for this game in training camps in Jordan, Malaysia and China. They have also played five warm-up matches.

The home side will be determined to add to the country's recent success in the sport. The senior team appeared in the 2010 World Cup while their Under 19 and Under 16 teams are reigning champions of Asia.

Mahdi Ali's team is also made up of several 2008 Asian Under 19 champions, and they also reached the quarter-finals of the 2009 Youth World Cup.

If the UAE defeat North Korea, they will advance to the third round, where 12 teams will be divided into three groups and play on a home-and-away format from September 21. The group winners will be Asia's three direct representatives at the Games, and the three runners-up will clash in a play-off at a centralised venue in March. The winners from there will meet the representative from Africa for a berth at the Olympics.

"Making it into the finals of the London Games is a legitimate dream for our nation," said Mutrif al Shamsi, the team manager.

arizvi@thenational.ae

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