DUBAI // Ismail Matar is a step closer to playing in the type of arena he craves after being named as one of four over-age players in the extended UAE squad for the Olympic Games.
It is nine years now since the Al Wahda forward served notice of his rich potential by being named the player of the tournament at a World Youth Championship that also involved Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano and Dani Alves.
In the intervening time he has spoken frequently of his desire to leave these shores to test himself in a leading European league.
However, the furthest he has made it so far has been to Qatar, where he spent a brief spell on loan at Al Sadd in 2009.
He is set to be granted a belated shot at the big stage, though, having been called in to the initial 24-man training squad ahead of the London Games.
“We know he is eager to play in this as he has said so in interviews,” said Mahdi Ali, the coach of the national Olympic team.
“He has been doing very well in recent matches, he has been showing he wants to be selected in this team for the Olympics.”
If he does make the final cut when the squad is pared down from 24 to 18 – and the four over-age players become three – Matar does have some experience of senior international competition to call on.
The diminutive attacker also earned the player of the tournament award at the 2007 Gulf Cup, when he scored the winning goal against Oman in the final, in his home city of Abu Dhabi.
Abdullah Mousa, Ali Kasheif and Ismail Hammadi are the three other players older than 23 who are vying for a place in the final 18.
Even though Matar, who is the most senior player at 29, will be considered an old man in a youthful squad which has thrived under Mahdi Ali’s guidance through age-group football, there is still other experience to lean on.
Adnan Al Talyani, the UAE’s most capped player, will be part of Mahdi Ali’s support staff as the team supervisor for the Olympics.
“More than anything the players have to enjoy playing at this tournament, because it is not something that happens all the time,” said Al Talyani, 47.
“We had to work hard to reach this position, and we have to continue working hard.”
The UAE start their campaign against Uruguay at Old Trafford on July 26, and then face Great Britain at Wembley three days later. Their last group match is against Senegal in Coventry on August 1.
“Playing in the Olympics and playing at Wembley is a really big thing for us,” Mahdi Ali said. “We don’t know if we will ever get this chance again. It will motivate the players.
“We have played many games now during Asian Games, World Cup and qualifying for this.
“They were really hard and we have learnt a lot.
“The players will know what is required of them when we get there.”