DUBAI // Slumped on the grass at the corner of an empty penalty box at the Maktoum Stadium, Ahmed Khalil must have felt like he had gatecrashed the wrong party. This was no fun. More like a wake, in fact, as men many years his senior sat around mourning the death of their chance to play at the World Cup. Life was not supposed to be like this.
Less than a week ago, Khalil had emerged as the new golden boy of UAE football by shooting his side to glory in the AFC Under 19 Championship in Dammam. He would have been forgiven if part of him was still celebrating that fleeting moment of triumph, even as those around him were left to face up to the realistic end of their World Cup bid, following their 1-1 draw with Iran. The junior side's success last Friday night had been like an epiphany. All of a sudden, thanks to a group of teenagers, the nation's football fans had been allowed to hope again. Inspiration can be found in the oddest places. The gang of teens who meandered around the field prior to the game, clad in baseball caps and with collars upturned, looked like any of the young people you would see in the mall on a Friday night.
But these boys were champions. Even the Iranian fans broke off from their fervent singing to applaud the youngsters during their lap of honour, just before kick-off. As they returned to the main stand after accepting the acclaim, VIPs clambered to have their photos taken with the trophy. The odds facing the senior team had been momentarily forgotten. Dominique Bathenay, the national team's French manager, neatly rode the wave of euphoria. He had elevated Khalil, 17, to his first-team squad, and promptly threw him on midway through the second half against Iran.
His appearance was met with a mighty reception, the like of which would have humbled even Ismail Matar, in all his 2006 Gulf Cup glory. To watch, albeit briefly, Mattar and Khalil in harness together should have provided the home faithful with plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Matar left the field at the conclusion in tears. For all the promise granted by a handsome first-half strike from the captain, Abdulraheem Jumaa, the optimism was punctured by the Iranians with all the inevitability of rush hour traffic on the Sheikh Zayed Road.
Persians know their way around these parts. Al Nasr are the UAE's oldest club, and there is a rich seam of Iranian influence running through their heritage. There are three Iranians in the Oud Metha club's first team at present. When Karim Bagheri, Iran's veteran captain headed home the equaliser with nine minutes left, the mini Tehran that was the away end was bedlam. Khalil himself could have been the saviour but had a claim for a penalty turned down in stoppage time. Two fairytales in one week is too much to ask for.