The UAE’s top youth players will be happy to stay out of airports for some time. Over the past 15 months, the nation’s Under 17 squad members have done enough travelling to last a lifetime in preparation for the biggest challenge of their fledgling careers, the 2013 Fifa Under 17 World Cup.
But behind the UAE football federation’s gruelling schedule is a method designed to hone the squad’s technical, physical and mental strengths.
The trips to the western and eastern sides of the Eurasian land mass, with several trips between, have bought them into opposition with some of the world’s finest U17 teams, many of whom will be present when the event kicks off in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.
When not playing against the likes of defending U17 World Cup title holders Mexico or South America champions Argentina, the young Emiratis have been asked to take on teams several years their senior in order to best prepare for the physicality some of their World Cup rivals will bring to the competition.
Above all, the weeks and months on the road have produced an unshakeable bond between players, staff and management.
“As a group we’ve been together for a long time now,” Badr Ahmed, the team manager, said before the side jetted off to their last camp, in Spain.
Ahmed joined the team on July 1 2012 and the manager Rashid Amir started the previous April.
Continuity and meticulous preparation have been the FA’s bywords. Since last summer, the squad have been involved in a series of tournaments in Turkey (twice), Al Ain, Al Taif, in Saudi Arabia; Malaysia and Spain (twice), not to mention a series of home friendlies and a 16-match stint in the UAE U19 league.
Many of the matches have been against players from older age groups, aimed at toughening the young Emiratis. Just as important, the manager feels that players have developed a mental strength that has positively impacted their performances on the pitch.
“In the year or so we’ve worked together, we have developed a bond with the players. We’ve become one family, you can say,” Ahmed added. “Everyone genuinely cares for one another and no one steps outside the group.”
The overseas camps meant players were away from their families for long stretches, including the months of Ramadan this year and last.
“Look, we all knew that we have to sacrifice certain things,” said goalkeeper Mohammed Khalid Al Mansoori. “If you’re aiming to achieve great things and make the country proud, you have to be willing to sacrifice.”
The sacrifices have borne fruit over the past several months, with performances consistently improving against a rising quality of opposition.
The team this week returned from their last training camp, in Spain, having played four matches that resulted in three draws and a win against Ivory Coast, Mexico, Argentina and Panama.
The team has a week to become acclimated to being back home before the serious business starts, at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, on Thursday.
Whatever happens to the young Emirati club in the next three weeks, one thing is certain.
It will not result from a lack of preparation.
TIMELINE OF THE UAE’S TRAVELS
Turkey. July 8-27, 2012: Coach Rashid Amir and his young squad (players born in 1996) embark on a 15-month training programme in preparation for the 2013 U17 World Cup, to be held in the UAE, with a training camp in Istanbul. The team plays four practice matches against local teams during Ramadan.
Saudi Arabia. July 31-August 8, 2012: A win against Australia, draw with China, and loss to hosts Saudi Arabia on penalties sees the UAE finish second in a four team-team tournament in Al Taif.
Spain. September 27-October 7, 2012: After a harrowing start, the UAE improve steadily as they finish fifth in a competition that includes some of the world’s finest teams in this age group. The scores: Mexico 6, UAE 0; US 2, UAE 0; Morocco 1, UAE 0; Azerbajan 0, UAE 0; UAE 2, Canada 1.
UAE. January 2-8, 2013: The young Emiratis kick off the new year with plenty of goals and another final shoot-out loss in this mini-tournament in Al Ain. The scores: UAE 3, Japan 3; UAE 5, Tunisia 4; UAE loss to Czech Republic on penalties.
UAE. April 2013: The UAE and Iraq trade wins in friendly matches played at Theyab Awana Field at the FA headquarters in Al Khawaneej in Dubai. The scores: Iraq 1, UAE 2; Iraq 3, UAE 2.
UAE. October 13, 2012 - May 5, 2013: To prepare them for the physical challenges ahead, the U17s are entered in the UAE U19 domestic league. They kick off with a 3-1 loss to Al Nasr, and wrap up with a 1-0 loss to Al Ahli seven months later.
From 16 matches, the U17s won five, had one draw and lost 10, finishing in sixth place.
Turkey. July 12-August 5, 2013: Another Ramadan, another trip to Istanbul. A vastly improved UAE thrash the youngsters of Besiktas 5-0 before registering a morale-boosting 3-1 win over Slovakia, who they face in their third World Cup group match, in Abu Dhabi.
Malaysia. August 13-31, 2013: A successful trip to the Far East sees the UAE continue their run of form with three wins and a draw against older opposition in Kuala Lumpur. The scores: Singapore U19 0, UAE 4; Malaysia U20 2, UAE 5; Indonesia U19 0, UAE 0; Malaysia U19 0, UAE 4.
UAE. September 17, 2013: The UAE prepare for their last training camp with 4–1 win over Bahrain’s U19s in Dubai.
Spain. September 20-October 9, 2013: Four matches against teams present at the World Cup sees the UAE reaching peak conditions at just the right time. The Whites return home for the last time to set up base in Abu Dhabi before the big kick off on October 17. The scores: UAE 1, Ivory Coast 1; UAE 1, Mexico 1; UAE 4, Panama 0; UAE 1, Argentina 1.