It was at times heroic, but ultimately heartbreaking.
Over the past 16 months, the young Emirati players had prepared for every opponent, for every possible scenario. But few of them would have envisaged adversity striking so early in the opening match of the Fifa U17 World Cup against Honduras at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
A goal down, a man down, and not even half an hour played.
The crowd was initially modest, but most of the players had never had the eyes of the world’s media on them to such a degree. They were nervous and it showed.
Inspiration was needed, from somewhere.
On Tuesday night Rashid Amir’s youngsters had watched as Mahdi Ali’s seniors destroyed Hong Kong 4-0 in their latest 2015 Asian Cup qualifier. The U17 assistant coach Abdullah Al Shaheen had called the Gulf Cup heroes the perfect “role models”.
The UAE started as if desperate to emulate Ali Mabkhout, Omar Abdulrahman and co; to make the country proud, as they had promised pre-tournament.
And what a start it was. In the very first minute, Mohammed Al Akberi found himself one on one with the keeper Cristian Hernandez, who saved brilliantly. Almost dreamland.
The crowd, so sparse and disappointing for the earlier match between Brazil and Slovakia, eventually swelled to over 8,000 and to their credit were making plenty of noise. Sadly, it didn’t last; harsh reality was about to intervene.
On 19 minutes, Al Akberi’s opposite No 9, Alberth Elis, missed while through on goal. A minute later, Honduras took the lead through Fredy Medina. Clearly, they were no pushovers, their artistic playmaker Rembrandt Flores arguably the most creative player on the pitch.
Then came the turning point of the match, Sultan Al Shamsi’s sending off for a high tackle. Surely, the UAE would never recover. The crowd kept singing, and drumming. But the passes were straying, and the chances dried up.
Then, out of nowhere, a quite wonderful chipped pass by Suhail Al Noobi put Khaled Khalfan through on goal. The first touch took him past the keeper, the second gleefully scored from one yard; 1-1.
The players, relieved, bowed in prayer. In the stands, the fans had theirs answered.
Suddenly, all those long hours of preparation away from home were bearing fruit. Where the 11 men had struggled, the 10 flourished. Adversity had bred resistance.
But could they hold out?
Over the past year, the UAE Football Association had matched their youngsters against teams several years older, with the aim of physically toughening them up. It showed. Despite the numerical disadvantage, the boys in red were up to the challenge.
Al Akberi, the loneliest player on the pitch, ran his heart out up front, dragging the Honduran defenders all across the back line. Often lost in a sea of defenders, he offered a lone ray of hope. Already, he has singled himself out as a star of the future.
But, as the match wore on, cramp and injuries inevitably began to show. Khalid Mohammed and Al Noobi both limped off.
Flores kept pulling the strings. Within seconds, Abdullah Al Hammadi saved off the line twice. In, the corners kept coming, and out the Emirati headers kept clearing them. But the pressure was mounting and the dam was about to burst.
On 86 minutes, heartbreak. A shot by Bryan Velasquez from the edge of the area beat Al Shamsi. The young Emiratis had nothing left to give.
At the final whistle the players sank to their knees, in exhaustion as much as dejection. But there was one last act of defiance; a huddle in the centre circle before departing to applause from an appreciative crowd.
For Rashid Amir and his players, there is no time for self pity. Next up, on Sunday, it’s the boys from Brazil.
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