ABU DHABI // The confidence seemed to be growing every passing day for the Emirati footballers, who face North Korea on Saturday in the opening match of their World Cup qualifiers. As he and his teammates took a day off from the training schedule on the first night of the holy month of Ramadan, their influential forward, Ismail Matar, said this was the UAE's best chance to qualify for a World Cup.
"We have never been so close to qualifying for a World Cup since reaching the finals in 1990," he said. "This is our best chance, with the first two games at home. The first match is important and if we can start off with a win then the pressure will ease. "We don't expect any game to be easy at this level but there is no team in this group that is unbeatable. I hope the fans will stand behind us to achieve this dream of going to South Africa in 2010."
The Al Wahda striker added: "We are very confident of a win against North Korea and this feeling keeps growing on us every passing day. We need to win if we want to play with the best in the world. All my colleagues are aware of this fact and this feeling makes us stronger and stronger by the day." The UAE lost at home to Bahrain 3-2 in their final friendly on Friday and Matar felt it was a game in which they didn't play to their true potential. "We made a lot of mistakes but in a way it was good so we can work on them [mistakes] ahead of the match with North Korea," he said.
They also played poorly against Syria in their last World Cup match, losing 3-1. However, they reached the final qualifying round on a better goal difference. Matar felt the Syria match was one of those games where nothing went right for them. "That was another poor game, but the important thing was that we qualified for the next round," he said. "Those results are history. We are really focused in what is lying ahead. We'll take one match at a time and North Korea come first.
"We have studied them on DVD's and playing at home gives us a huge advantage. We have also prepared well and are confident of a good result." Matar's name features in the list of contenders for the 2008 Asian Footballer of the Year. He came into the spotlight on the back of his two goals that set up his country's thrilling 3-2 win over Kuwait in the World Cup Group 5 qualifier. The diminutive forward shot to international fame in 2003 at the Fifa Under 20 World Cup when his performances on home soil earned him the Adidas Golden Ball. He has not looked back since, and has developed from a promising player into the team's talisman.
Matar starred in UAE's first Gulf Cup triumph last year on home soil. He was the hero after scoring five goals in five games, picking up awards for the best player and the tournament's top scorer. firstname.lastname@example.org