The zenith of UAE football? We are living it.
Mahdi Ali’s senior side are unbeaten for 18 matches spanning nearly 15 months, and they have performed stylishly. Fans can assume victory, as well as scads of possession, moments of technical brilliance and numerous goals.
It must be similar to how it feels to be a partisan of Brazil or Spain. High expectations, repeatedly met.
In the past week, the UAE qualified for an important cup competition, as did Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. The critical difference? The three African nations secured a place in the 2014 World Cup; the UAE clinched a spot in the 2015 Asian Cup.
It must be wrenching for UAE fans to watch Jordan, their hopelessly overmatched Asia compatriot, destroyed 5-0 by Uruguay, in Amman, in the first leg of an intercontinental play-off for a place at Brazil. The second leg, essentially a dead rubber, is in Montevideo on Wednesday.
What if it were the UAE playing Uruguay, instead?
We have recent history on the potential outcome of that match-up: the UAE led Uruguay 1-0 in the first match of the 2012 London Olympics, losing only 2-1, before a full house at Old Trafford. Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani played in the game, but at no time did the Emiratis look overmatched. In subsequent days, the UAE would be level at the hour mark with Great Britain at Wembley Stadium (losing 3-1), and draw 1-1 with Senegal. Global football powers, all.
The recognition that the final berths in the 2014 World Cup are only now being decided raises an uncomfortable thought: that the UAE’s national team are reaching a peak at the wrong moment — too late for 2014, too soon for 2018.
It did not have to be this way.
In September of 2011, as the third round of Asia qualifying began, Srecko Katanec, the UAE’s coach at the time, was convinced the Emirati kids who had experienced success after success in age-group competition under Mahdi Ali were not ready for the country’s senior team. “Boys against men” was his analysis.
The team Katanec put on the pitch for the opener against Kuwait included only three members of what now is considered the country’s golden generation. Two others were on the bench. Kuwait won 3-2.
Four days later, again, three of the “kids” were in the line-up, in Beirut. As had been the case in Al Ain a few days earlier, several of the players in the UAE side leave an observer astonished, now, that they could have been on the pitch, little more than two years ago.
Lebanon won 3-1, and the UAE’s World Cup dreams effectively were dead. The golden generation had not been brought to bear soon enough, but they soon showed their abilities at the Olympics, under Mahdi Ali.
Coach and Olympic team, now mostly 23 or 24, moved en masse to the senior side, and aside from a 1-0 friendly defeat in Japan, they have not lost. That run includes the second Gulf Cup victory in the nation’s history, a rise of 50 places in the Fifa world rankings and an Asian Cup berth at the earliest moment.
Brazil 2014 is half a year away, but the UAE’s global ambitions focus on Russia 2018. Qualifying will pick up in 2015, after the Asian Cup, and here is the rub: qualifying will not finish before 2017.
By then, those “kids” Katanec dismissed will be far less kid-like. Most will be 27 or 28.
In modern football, increasingly it seems as if age 25 is the new 30 and 30 is the new retired. The punishing pace and a mountain of fixtures are breaking down players like never before, and a player’s peak may now be 24.
Sometimes the timing is just a bit off for a golden generation. Consider that of Portugal’s Luis Figo. Their peak probably was 2000 or 2001. They seemed exhausted at the 2002 World Cup and went out in the group stage. They hosted the 2004 Euros and, in the final, fell to Greece in a shocking upset. That golden generation won nothing. UAE fans will hope this marvellous team, caught between the biggest tournaments, will not suffer the same fate.
UAE’s 18-game unbeaten streak
Date Result Opponent Site
11/09/12 W3-0 Kuwait Dubai
12/10/12 D2-2 Uzbekistan Dubai
16/10/12 W6-2 Bahrain Dubai
14/11/12 W2-1 Estonia Abu Dhabi
25/12/12 W2-0 Yemen Doha
05/01/13 W3-1 Qatar Bahrain
08/01/13 W2-1 Bahrain Manama
11/01/13 W2-0 Oman Bahrain
15/01/13 W1-0 Kuwait Bahrain
18/01/13 W2-1 (aet) Iraq Bahrain
06/02/13 W2-1 Vietnam Hanoi
23/02/13 W2-1 Uzbekistan Abu Dhabi
05/09/13 D2-2, UAE 7-6 (pens) Trinidad & Tobago Riyadh
09/09/13 W2-0 New Zealand Riyadh
09/10/13 W3-1 Malaysia Shenzhen
15/10/13 W4-0 Hong Kong HK
11/11/13 W4-0 Philippines Abu Dhabi
15/11/13 W4-0 Hong Kong Abu Dhabi
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