Mahdi Ali, the national Under 20 football coach, is banking on five tough friendly matches during the team's final training camp in Turkey to get them fighting fit for next month's World Cup in Egypt. The team left for Turkey yesterday and will be at a training camp in Antalya for the next 13 days before moving to Istanbul. They fly to Alexandria on September 24, three days before their World Cup opener against South Africa.
Hungary and Honduras are the two other teams in the UAE's group, and Ali has planned friendly matches in Turkey against countries closest in football style to their opponents. "We will be playing two games against Montenegro and one game each against Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Costa Rica," said Ali. "Playing Cameroon [September 4] and Ivory Coast [September 9] will be a good experience for the game against South Africa. Montenegro [September 13 and 15] will help us for the game against Hungary, while Costa Rica [September 18] will be like a rehearsal for the Honduras game.
"So I believe we shall be ready for our group games when we leave Istanbul for Alexandria." The camp in Turkey will also be crucial as Mohammed Fawzi and Amer Abdul Rehman will both return to the squad after missing team preparations in Switzerland because of injuries. "Amer had a surgery on a torn ligament, while Fawzi was suffering from a recurring injury so we sent him to specialists in Germany," said Ali. "Both the players are now looking forward to the camp in Turkey."
Ali has taken a squad of 30 to Turkey, but he will have to trim it to 21 by September 11, the final date for nations to submit their lists of players for the World Cup. The coach, however, decided to take all the players to Egypt to keep alive the positive atmosphere and camaraderie in the squad. "There is a really good feeling around the squad and we believe we should not disturb that," explained Ali..
"The players who will not be in the official squad can help in so many ways. They can keep the spirits of the team high through their support and encouragement." Most members of the squad have been playing together for the past six or seven years, and romped to the Asian Under 19 Championship title last year without losing a game. That triumph has, obviously, led to a lot of expectations from the side and Ali is hoping to fulfil them by reaching the semi-finals at least.
"We have forgotten about the Asia win," said Ali. "It is the past. We have to look at the future now. "We started preparing for the World Cup right after the win in Asia and I hope we will keep the flag of UAE football flying high. "The first target is to get past the first round, but our goal is to reach the semi-finals. We reached the quarter-finals at home in the 2003 Youth Championship and I want to do better than that."