It has been 20 years since the UAE last qualified for a World Cup. The national side's Italia '90 campaign began and ended with three defeats in the group stage, but the results hardly mattered. The Emirati side had tasted life among the finest teams on the global stage.
No subsequent national team has matched their accomplishment. In truth, none has come close. Almost 20 team managers have come and gone during the UAE's barren spell and two generations of Emirati players have dealt with disappointment. Is the country's failure to qualify an underachievement? Or did the 1990 golden generation perform above what should be expected? The answers - unsurprisingly, given the topsy-turvy nature of UAE football - are complicated.
"Qualifying for the World Cup is not an easy job," said Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi, the president of the UAE Football Association. "We have to be realistic and know our capabilities. "We need luck as well. But we've changed coaches lots of times and many generations of players suffered. We are trying to learn from those lessons." Even as al Rumaithi and others acknowledge the obstacles that stand between the UAE and a return to the World Cup, they believe the country's highly-rated youth sides hold hope for the future.
"We have a strategy to develop football in the country and the national team," al Rumaithi said. "The plan is to prepare the best players - be they from our youth sides or the existing national first team - for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil." The road back to the World Cup will be more difficult than the one travelled in 1990. One reason is the rise of Japan and South Korea as the superpowers of east Asian football. The Koreans have played in every World Cup since 1986, Japan since 1994. And the introduction of Australia to the regional qualifying fold, in 2006 after switching from the Oceania zone, is also telling.
Combined, the three successful nations have forced the continent's other sides to battle for scraps: one place out of four. Against such odds, the UAE has struggled. The team failed to win a game in the final stage of the Asian qualifying section for the 2010 World Cup, losing seven of their eight matches. Saudi Arabia, who reached four consecutive World Cups from 1994 to 2006, have stepped up as the principal Middle East representatives.
But the 2010 World Cup will kick-off in South Africa with no participating Gulf nations, for the first time since 1982. One reason, al Rumaithi said, is the size of nations involved. "When you compare us to the football superpowers of Asia, let's say on population, then the UAE is far behind Japan, South Korea or Iran," he said. "The base or pool of players from which we can select is much smaller than our counterparts."
However, Josef Hickersberger, the former manager of Abu Dhabi's Al Wahda, believes desire, not size, is the UAE's biggest problem. He questioned the mentality of UAE players: "Maybe some of them are not hungry enough. Talent alone is not enough, you need to have hunger for success." The region's football scene is very different to 1990. Professional leagues have emerged and the area's top club sides square off against Asia's finest in the continent's Champions League.
A concern, however, is that the FA's desire to rear and nurture a squad of players in the 1990 mould is not necessarily the primary objective for domestic clubs. "We had a good team in Italy. They were well taken care of by the then-FA president, Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed," al Rumaithi said. "He was fully supportive of the federation and he spent a lot of money from his own pocket bringing in good coaches and providing camps for the players.
"They were a generation who started together and came through together; they ended up performing well and got to a World Cup. I believe we have good talents in the UAE who can make an impact, but clubs need to realise the balance between local competitions and the interests of the national team. "It is not just about bringing in foreign players to make the league stronger, because they keep national players on the bench."
Expensive foreign players, as in many of the world's domestic leagues, are among the best performers in the domestic Pro League. Despite several of the division's foreign legion being eligible to play for the UAE under Fifa regulations, al Rumaithi is reluctant to follow the example of other Gulf countries, such as Qatar and Bahrain, and draft non-citizens in to the UAE set-up. "We should consider it, but with limitations," al Rumaithi said. "As a UAE citizen, I would not be very proud of a team that consisted of eight or nine players from outside. If there is a super player that can add to the team and they have the will to participate and represent the UAE, then we can do that. We can ask our leadership to do that by saying this player can help us and he fits the criteria of Fifa.
"Until now, there has been no potential for that, largely because Fifa complicated the issue by raising the residential time the player must stay in the country from two to five years. "There are big teams in Europe with players who weren't born in Europe, so it is not re-inventing the wheel. But if we do it in the UAE we will do it in a very shy way. We will not just open the door to everyone. "I want to be proud of my national team and the spectators want to be proud too, but if there are those who can help - not more than one or two maximum - then why not?"
The flip side to the sporting passports argument, however, is enticing Emirati players to get more stamps in their own travel documents. Players plying their trade abroad, Hickersberger believes, will drastically improve the quality of the UAE team. "You can't become an international star by playing all your life in the local league," said Hickersberger, who coached the Austrian national team at the World Cup in 1990 and for the 2008 European Championship.
"If the players do not play at the highest level they will not improve, but I don't see it happening in the near future because the UAE players have such good lifestyles here they don't need to leave. Why should anyone move abroad to work hard for a living when everything they want can be found at home?" However, the view of Khalid Ismail, one of the UAE's two goal-scorers at Italia '90, is that the players are sub-standard.
"With the kind of players we have, we don't have any good enough to play outside this country," he said. "In our time, we had players who were being given opportunities to play abroad, but the clubs did not allow us to go. I had offers from Germany's Eintracht Frankfurt, Tunisia's Club African and a few Brazilian teams, but my president refused to let me leave. I wanted to go, but the president has final say."
Al Rumaithi added: "I think the players' ambitions are key. We do much more for our team than other teams in Asia. We provide them with all the support they need, but when the team goes on to the pitch it is up to them. If they are ambitious enough we can make it, but it is up to them to bring the glory days back to the UAE." Money, not stardom, has ruined the players' desire, Ismail said. "Four Asian teams can qualify now, it should be very easy for them - yet still they can't do it," he said.
"Our players back then were all-star players, even our bench were stars. But now we don't have anything. For us, it wasn't like now where the players are given everything - they have too much." Al Rumaithi also said the UAE's players must reverse their fragile mentalities if they want to reach the World Cup. "I want the players to sit down and decide that it is not the president, not the coach and not the board, the responsibility is up to them," al Rumaithi said. "If you want praise, you must work hard for it. Criticism kills our players; they retreat within themselves and can't face it when fans or the media say bad things about them. They need to be mentally stronger."
To increase qualification chances, al Rumaithi is building from the base up. Youth team performances point to improvement and there is optimism that the UAE's current crop of youngsters can make the grade. "We know that we can prepare a strong team, but we have to expect fierce competition for 2014," al Rumaithi said. "The positive news is that we have good young talents who, with existing national team players who are not too old, will be there for 2014 qualification."
Hickersberger, who left Al Wahda under a cloud of controversy over excessive salary demands last month, urged al Rumaithi to retain the focus on youth. "The UAE have some really talented youngsters coming through," Hickersberger said. "The young players have done admirably well in their age group competitions, particularly the Under 20 team that reached the World Cup quarter-finals in Egypt. I wouldn't say that entire team will be in the next World Cup qualifying squad, but there are some good players and several have already been called up to the senior squad."
Al Rumaithi remains pragmatic about the UAE's chances to join 31 other teams for the beautiful game's ultimate international competition. "The World Cup is the game's biggest tournament and we have to know our capabilities," he said. "At the end of the day, only 32 countries make it and when you look at a small country like the UAE it is inevitable that we will struggle. "Of course though, we will try our best, prepare and fight. If we do everything right, and have the luck, we might just get to Brazil." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * Additional reporting by Amith Passela and Gary Meenaghan
Under 19-20s The UAE's Under 19 side won the first Asian U19 Championship in Saudi Arabia in 2008 and reached the last eight in the Under 20 World Cup in Egypt last year. It was creditable show from the young Emiratis, who were eliminated then they lost 2-1 to Costa Rica on a goal in injury time. Many of that team have progressed to the senior team and their successors are looking well placed to emulate them. This year they qualified for the continental championship by topping the group, unbeaten in four games, for the U19 finals in China from October 3 to 17. They have been drawn against Vietnam, Jordan and Japan in Group C at the tournament. Under 16-17s The UAE reached the semi-finals of the Asian Under 16 Championship in 2008 and went on to represent Asia at the U17 World Cup in Nigeria last year. They too progressed beyond the group stage as the best third-placed team behind Spain and the USA, before bowing out after a 2-0 defeat to Turkey. In the U16 Asian championship in Uzbekistan from October 24 to November 7, they are drawn in a group with China, Iraq and Kuwait. All four semi-finalists will represent Asia at next year's U17 World Cup. Youth system graduates √ Ahmed Khalil, 18, pictured left, has already made his mark in the senior team with a winner against Moldova last week. He was voted the Asian Youth Player of the Year in 2009. √ Hamdan al Kamali, 21, was the captain of the Under 20 team that shone in Egypt. He impressed in last year's friendly against Manchester City and is regarded as the country's best young defender. √ Amer Abdulrahman, 20, is a promising and agile midfielder with wonderful dribbling skills. Has already been picked in Srecko Katanec's senior squad.