DUBAI // The UAE are targeting a place in the final eight of the London 2012 football tournament, the country's Olympic coach said Wednesday, and he has no preference for which teams are in his team's group - as long as the Great Britain side are not one of them.
"I prefer not to be in the same group as England," Mahdi Ali said. "I prefer not to play the host."
English players will compete as part of a Great Britain team, and are expected to supply the bulk of the squad for the host nation.
Ali's goal for the UAE, in their Olympic football debut, is to finish in the top two of their group, which will be one of four groups in the 16-nation competition.
"We want to advance to the second round," Ali said. "We don't say we can get a medal, but we believe we can qualify for the quarter-finals.
"This is a big event, the Olympics. Maybe it is not at the level of the World Cup, but it is one of the biggest in the world. For 28 years, the UAE did not qualify because it is not easy. To play in it means you are one of the 16 best [Under 23] teams in the world.
"It's a big achievement."
The UAE are likely to have in their group one of the four highest-ranked football nations who are in the tournament: Spain (No 1), Uruguay (4), Brazil (5) and England (6).
No group may contain more than one team from any continental federation, so the UAE cannot play South Korea or Japan in the first round.
Ali has drawn up a daily plan for the UAE side, contingent on approval by the Football Association's technical committee, and it began with the invitation of 45 players to the training camp that will convene in mid-June somewhere in Europe, he said.
Only 18 players can be part of the Olympic team, but each country can bring four reserve players who can be added to the side in case of injury.
The draw will be held at Wembley Stadium on April 24, and Ali will be among the UAE contingent in attendance. On the following day they will inspect the facilities, including hotel and training ground, in the city where they will play their first match: Coventry, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow or Cardiff.
The UAE will play six friendlies before the London Games, Ali added, four against other Olympic teams and two against professional clubs. He wants at least one match against a South American side and another against an African team, "so we can sample all the schools of the game".
He said reaction to his team's qualification has been overwhelming. "I have seen great celebration," he said. "People are happy. Many journalists and TV programmes want to make interviews with the players and coaches and staff. People want to know how we made it.
"I am very, very happy, and it was a great occasion when we were able to meet Sheikh Khalifa [bin Zayed, President of the UAE]. I was personally very happy for this, and it shows how the President as well as the average citizen have been watching. He said he watched many games and the last game, against Uzbekistan, he saw from the beginning to the end."
MATAR AMONG VETERANS VYING FOR A PLACE
li has invited nearly a dozen "overage" players to vie for a place on the London 2012 Olympic football team, including Ismail Matar, the hero of the UAE's 2007 Gulf Cup championship.
The Olympic team coach yesterday said he and the FA's technical committee are not committed to adding veterans to the Under 23 side who qualified for the Summer Games, but he expects that the maximum number allowed in the Olympics, three, will join the team.
Lionel Messi of Argentina and Ronaldinho of Brazil were among the overage players to compete at Beijing 2008. Argentina won gold.
"Every player in the UAE, it's his dream to play in the Olympics," Ali said. "They are very keen to go."
All of the over-23 players who have been invited have played in the national first team, but their recent failure to advance in World Cup qualifying will not be held against them, Ali said.
He added, however, that players significantly older than the U23 core are less likely to join the team. "We are thinking about the future also," he said, "and this is like a prep tournament for what will be the first team in two or three years."
Matar, 28, scored three goals for the UAE during the recent World Cup campaign, and he scored five in the 2007 Gulf Cup, the senior side's only international championship, including the winners in both the semi-final and final.
Majed Naser, the first-choice goalkeeper for the national team, was not called in to the Olympic squad. The former Al Wasl player recently announced his retirement, following a 17-match suspension for striking the Al Ahli coach Quique Sanchez Flores.
Players over 23 who have been invited to the UAE Olympic camp:
Goalkeeper Ali Kasheif (Al Jazira)
Defenders Walid Abbas (Al Shabab), Yousuf Jaber (Baniyas), Fares Juma (Al Ain), Abdullah Mousa (Jazira), Basheer Saeed (Al Ahli)
Midfielders Adel Abdullah (Shabab), Ismail Al Hammadi (Ahli) Mohammed Al Shehhi (Al Wahda)
Forward Ismail Matar (Wahda)
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