DUBAI // Despite the extended period of preparation that is already under their belts, the UAE Under 17 national team will not be allowed to slacken just yet.
The carrot of a Fifa World Cup on home soil has proven enough to ensure one of the country’s most talented age groups remains committed to an intensive programme that began earlier this summer.
Expeditions to Turkey and Malaysia have honed skills and refined game plans, built belief and bonds. Now, with their World Cup opener against Honduras 27 days away, the UAE embark on Friday on their third and final training camp: a three-week stay at Marbella, Spain.
There will be no time spent indulging in the warm glow of the Costa del Sol; the UAE recognise the challenge that lies ahead when they return next month to more familiar surroundings.
“Our preparations are maybe extensive, but we’ve needed these as we’re facing the biggest tournament possible, which is the World Cup,” said Rashid Amir, the UAE coach.
“Some of the teams have an advantage because they’ve won the title at different times, like Brazil and Mexico, but in undertaking these preparations we are ready to face this tournament and the teams we’re going to play against.”
As well as the first game against Honduras, the UAE team will face Slovakia, who they play in their final group match.
In between is a plum tie against Brazil, the three-time champions, in a Group A full of intrigue. The match against Honduras at Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium is the focus, but the Brazilian encounter has cast a long shadow since the draw was made in the capital last month.
Amir, though, insists his young side must not cast minds too far into the future.
“In the World Cup we’re prepared to play against any national team no matter who they are,” he said. “Everybody’s talking about Brazil, but it’s not an obstacle for the UAE national team.
“We focus everything on our first match against Honduras because that’s going to be the key for the rest of the games.
“However, the second game will be a big motivation for the players. But Brazil will be happy to be playing against the team hosting the World Cup.
“I respect Brazil and their potential, but it’s almost a bigger motivation for their team to play against the hosts because of the media and the spectators in the stadium, which will also be the case for Honduras against us in the opening game. We must be ready.”
According to Amir, the hosts’ preparations are “80 per cent” complete. The 26-strong squad that leaves for Marbella will contest four friendly matches there, purposely pitted against strong opponents, including Argentina and Mexico, the most recent winners of the U17 World Cup crown. Ivory Coast and Panama are their other two tests.
A final 21-man squad, to be submitted to Fifa by October 2, will be entrusted to carry into the October 17-November 8 tournament the positive feeling that has enveloped UAE football. Success at senior national team level, evidenced by January’s Gulf Cup triumph and a steady climb through the Fifa world rankings, acts as a stimulus to the U17s side who, Amir said, hope to one day help continue such prosperity.
Last week, an under-16 side won the U17 Gulf Cup, which was played at the Aspire Academy in Qatar, beating Oman in the final.
“The Football Association is focusing on each and every category of the national teams and it’s obviously for one goal, which is to carry this talent and these players to the first team and build a better team in the future,” he said.
“They’re doing a great job here in the FA in providing everything that’s needed, technical and everything else, to develop these young players for the benefit of UAE football, and for the senior national team.”
KEEP TRACK OF THE TIME
July 1 – Squad meets before travelling to Turkey during Ramadan for a 25-day camp. There, they defeat a Besiktas side 5-0 and then Slovakia, their future Group A opponents, 3-1.
August 13 – After a short break for Eid, the second phase of preparations begins in Malaysia. During their 19-day stay, the UAE played four matches against older age-group national teams of Malaysia and Indonesia and one against a local Malaysian side Shaha Alam. They were undefeated, winning three and drawing once, scoring 21 goals and conceding just two.
Friday – The UAE leave for three-week camp in Spain where they will face four international teams – Ivory Coast, Mexico, Panama and Argentina. They return on October 9 and will have a week to fine-tune their tactics before the tournament opener against Honduras on October 17.
TROPHY TOUR HITS ZAYED UNIVERSITY ON SUNDAY
The Fifa Under 17 World Cup Trophy Tour heads to Zayed University in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, its second stop. A tournament-branded dome will be set up and it will contain a series of football related activities and competitions designed to engage fans across the tour. Visitors will get the chance to buy tournament tickets and win prizes. The exhibit starts at noon.