ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT // Srecko Katanec has been camping in Alexandria since the start of the Under 20 World Cup, keeping an eye out for players he could use in his upcoming challenges with the senior national team. And the Slovenian's list must be getting longer every day.
In their first match against South Africa, the stars of Mahdi Ali's team showed Katanec their unrelenting spirit with two goals in added time to get an invaluable point. This attribute, of course, has been sorely missing from the senior national side, as shown in the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2010 World Cup where they finished with just a single point from eight games. On Wednesday night, Katanec was given an exhibit of the composure that seems to be intrinsic to this youth team as the UAE defeated Honduras courtesy of Ahmed Khalil's 41st-minute strike to book their ticket for the second round.
Katanec, who will start his reign with a friendly against Palestine on October 10, said: "There were some really good performances on the pitch. They appeared well-organised and played as one unit. The important thing is they could still play a brand of football that was pleasing on the eye." Amer Abdulrahman was the UAE's star player. The diminutive playmaker was all over the park, behind almost every attack and their rock under any threat.
Amer received admirable support from Theyab Awana, Mohammed Fawzi and Habib al Fardan in the midfield. In defence, captain Hamdan al Kamali and Saad Surour showed maturity beyond their years, while Yousif Abdulrahman was a reassuring presence in goal. Honduras had come into the game with a big reputation but the UAE refused to be overawed and that was the most gratifying aspect of the win for the players themselves.
The turnaround against South Africa was largely responsible to this attitude. It made the team believe in the impossible and midfielder Sultan al Menhali admitted as much. "It was a major boost for us," he said. "It took our self-belief to another level. Of course, the coach worked hard on eliminating the mistakes that we made in the last game and now we are pleased to be through to the second round."
The UAE could be the only team representing Asia in the second round. Uzbekistan and Australia have lost their first two games and are virtually out of the reckoning; South Korea still have a chance, needing at least a draw against the US to progress. "We are happy to be keep the Asian flag flying," said Fawzi. "We want to go as far as we can." email@example.com