AL AIN // Subait Khater's first appearance for the UAE in a World Cup qualifying match was in Bangalore, India, on April 8, 2001. Current national team regulars Amer Abdulrahman and Hamdan Al Kamali were 11 years old at the time. Ahmed Khalil was 9.
As he begins his fourth World Cup qualifying cycle by playing in his 100th game with the national team, Khater brings to the side a depth of experience that only years of steady competence can create.
"Subait is important because he has qualities that the other players don't have," said Srecko Katanec, the UAE coach.
"It isn't easy to play in a World Cup qualifier; some players behave differently under the pressure. It is good to have older players like Subait who have played a lot of these games."
For a time, it seemed that Khater, 31, would not be playing in the match against Kuwait tonight. In January, on the eve of the Asian Cup, he said that tournament would be his last appearance with the national team.
He cited fatigue and stress from playing for club Al Jazira and country as the primary factors in his decision, which he described as "irrevocable".
Yet here he is, ready to wear the captain's armband again, organise the midfield and take most of the free kicks.
"If I can help the team, I will be with the team," he said yesterday, explaining his return. "And I will give 100 per cent."
Like every player of his generation, Khater wants to appear in the World Cup finals, and he believes the current national team has a good chance of making that breakthrough.
"It is a good time in UAE football," he said. "There are a lot of youngsters who have done really well, and they are the future of UAE football."
Katanec was not entirely surprised that Khater has come back. "He also told me he was finished the year before," the Slovenian coach said. "Now he is with us again."
Khater's latest renaissance may be traced to a groin injury that sidelined him for most of the summer. While the national team trained in Austria, he recuperated and seemed to rediscover the energy to resume international duty.
He was unavailable for the home-and-away World Cup qualifiers with India in July, but he will be wearing the No 24 white shirt again tonight when the UAE plays Kuwait.
"We're ready as players, and we know we have a big challenge," he said.
The Asian Cup was not a success for Khater or the UAE; the team failed to score in three group matches in Qatar and came home.
He enjoyed a particularly successful club season, however: Jazira won the league and President's Cup double, the first side to manage that feat since 1991, or even before Khater first pulled on a UAE shirt.