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Coach Bruno Metsu is held aloft, left, after taking the UAE to Gulf Cup glory on January 30, 2007.
Coach Bruno Metsu is held aloft, left, after taking the UAE to Gulf Cup glory on January 30, 2007.

UAE team were lifted by a little magic from Metsu

The French coach provided the golden touch to guide the UAE senior team to their first and only trophy to date, writes Ahmed Rizvi.

A day after the UAE's historic Gulf Cup triumph on January 30, 2007, a blogger shared a clipped conversation he had with one of his friends from another Gulf country.

"You see UAE win Gulf Cup? When my country play UAE, every time miss goal. When Oman play UAE, every time miss goal. UAE use jinn as goalkeeper. This haram."

The "friend" obviously belonged to one of the countries that UAE had defeated on their way to their first title on the international stage. He was simply venting his frustrations. Jinns? If he had said "magician", it would have been more believable, for the UAE indeed had one on their side.

Curly coiffed with piercing blue eyes, Bruno Metsu had taken over the tag of the "White Witch Doctor" from Philippe Troussier after he directed Senegal to the quarter-finals at the 2002 World Cup. The Frenchman's legend grew when he guided Al Ain to the 2003 Asian Champions League title.

"If you put a stone in Metsu's hand, it will turn to gold," said Mohammed Suroor, a member of the Gulf Cup-winning squad of 2007. "He is a great tactician and reads the game really well."

Before 2007, the UAE had been to 17 Gulf Cups and always returned empty-handed. Three times - 1986, 1988 and 1994 - they lost in the final. Some of the world's best-known coaches, such as Don Revie, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Tomislav Ivic, Roy Hodgson and Carlos Queiroz, had led UAE in those campaigns, but failed in their bid to end the country's quest for a first Gulf title. Metsu succeeded.

"I never worked with a coach like Metsu," said Mohammed Omar, the captain of the 2007 UAE team who was also part of Metsu's squad when Al Ain won the Asian title. "He had very high modern ideas and tactics. He made us believe that we could win at any level. We had confidence, we had belief and we were a team.

"We were ready 200 per cent - mentally, physically; we were ready like lions. We waited for the referee to blow his whistle and we would eat anything in front of us. This is what Metsu does."

Metsu was also a great listener, according to Suroor, and encouraged the players to express their views. In team meetings, he rarely spent much time on the opposition.

"Above all, I try to make the players feel as confident as possible," Metsu once said in an interview. "I talk very little to them about their opponents, a little bit at the beginning of the week of the match, then nothing other than to point out their weaknesses.

"There are coaches who emphasise the opponents' to such an extent that the players come onto the pitch feeling frightened."

Metsu, instead, tried to entice players out of their comfort zones, encouraging them to unleash the beast within.

"I heard Jose Mourinho saying he wants his players to play like animals," he said earlier this year, before illness forced him to step down as the coach at Al Wasl. "And that's the same as me."

That is the reason why Metsu appreciates Majed Naser so much. The temperamental goalkeeper is just back from a lengthy ban following two incidents of violence last season, but the Frenchman was not happy to see Naser leave Wasl for Al Ahli during the last transfer window.

"Majed was not happy if he took one point out of a game," Metsu said. "He'd fight if he wasn't happy, because he likes to win. I like that mentality because you shouldn't be satisfied with a point. For me it's important to win."

That mentality saw Naser keep a clean sheet in the semi-final and the final of the 2007 Gulf Cup against Saudi Arabia and Oman. He was brilliant in both games and played a pivotal role in Metsu's strategy, along with the defenders Adel Abdulaziz, Basheer Saeed, Haider Ali and Rashid Abdulrahman.

After a 2-1 loss against Oman in their opening group match, when Helal Saeed was red carded, Metsu changed strategy, asking his team to sit back and absorb pressure, and make the best use of any opportunity that came their way on the counterattack. The new plan worked a charm, thanks to a 23-year-old forward named Ismail Matar.

In the semi-final against title-favourites Saudi Arabia, Matar struck the winner in the first minute of injury time. In the final, the Al Wahda striker repeated the feat, hitting the winner in the 72nd minute to finish with five goals for the tournament and the best player award.

An overflow crowd of more than 60,000 fans, some coming as early as 10am for the 5.20pm kick off, had packed the stadium at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi and when Matar thumped the ball past the Oman goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi, their joy knew no bounds.

On the eve of the match, Al Habsi had challenged Matar to score in the final and when the Emirati succeeded in doing so, he calmly reminded the goalkeeper of the boast and then thumped his chest and shouted: "We are the sons of Zayed!"

The final minutes of the game, in the words of Matar, were the "hardest and longest moments" of his life. When the referee blew the final whistle, celebrations erupted across the country and continued for the next few days. The team was taken on an open bus ride through Dubai and were guests of honour at several palaces.

Fans, both Emiratis and expatriates, clogged the streets in all emirates, often bringing traffic to a standstill. Sounding horns and waving national flags, they brought onlookers to their windows and balconies.

"If you want to know what the title means to us, go out and see the joy painted on the faces of the fans," Matar said at the time. "You will realise what winning it means."

"It was something you can't describe in words, it was simply unbelievable," Omar said. "The whole country was celebrating and the scenes on the roads, it's something unforgettable."

Omar still gets chills thinking of the moment when he became the first - and only - UAE captain to lift an international trophy. Before the game, he tried to make sure his teammates stayed calm and did not get carried away with their emotions or thoughts of avenging the earlier loss to Oman.

"I told them: 'Look guys, it's in our hands to make the whole country happy or sad. So what do you choose? Let's go onto the field and make everyone happy.'"

Yousuf Al Serkal, the president of the Football Association both then and now, remembers using similar words in his pep talk.

"In the room before the final match, we talked that we are there now and that we are on our home ground, and we should not allow anyone to come from outside and take the trophy from our hands," Al Serkal said. "It was in our hands and we should not give it away. Now I hope it comes back to our hand [again] and we do not give it away."Al Serkal was referring to the next Gulf Cup in Bahrain, which starts one week from today, with Mahdi Ali's men among the favourites. Most of the players in the senior national team have won the Gulf title at every age-group level. They have also been to the Youth World Cup and the Olympics, and took a silver medal at the last Asian Games.

"This generation, in my view, is our golden generation," Al Serkal said. "They have every chance of winning the championship and that will be our goal."

Matar is also optimistic, but warned against burdening the team with expectations.

"The Gulf Cup will not be easy," he said. "I believe the Gulf Cup is tougher than playing in Asia because [the Gulf states] are a family and when you play against each other, there is more aggression on the field. So it will be really tough, but we have a chance to win the title."

Winning the Gulf Cup, however, is not the top priority for Mahdi Ali or the FA. Encouraged by the recent success, they have set higher goals: qualifying for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia and then the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

"Frankly, winning the Gulf Cup was not one of our priorities," the UAE coach said.

"But we realise the importance of the Gulf Cup and we will be doing our best to compete for the title.

"We hope to give a performance that satisfies our supporters. It's not necessarily a priority or preference to win the title, but it is important to play in an honourable manner."

arizvi@thenational.ae

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