ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT // As the UAE's first Under 20 World Cup game against South Africa entered stoppage time on Sunday night, coach Mahdi Ali looked edgy pacing the sidelines. His team were down by two goals, but in his heart the former Al Ahli player believed the game could be saved.
And it happened. A few seconds into stoppage time, Ahmed Ali was brought down inside the box and skipper Hamdan al Kamali put the ball away from the penalty spot. The whole stadium, packed to its 14,000 capacity, erupted, but Mahdi Ali's response was a bit muted. There was just over a minute and a half of added time left and al Kamali's goal looked like a mere consolation. Ahmed Ali, however, ensured against that. A second-half substitute, he powered his way down the left before floating the ball in for Theyab Awana to complete the dramatic comeback with a powerful header. The game ended 2-2.
The coach leapt with joy, celebrating wildly with his players and staff, and the fans were in a frenzy. Each one of them, bar probably a dozen, had come to support the UAE and they could scarcely believe the result. Mahdi Ali, however, was a believer in the impossible. He had seen it all before, in a group game at last year's Asian U19 Championships, when UAE stunned South Africa with two goals in injury time.
He said: "The South Koreans were leading by a goal until the 91st minute, but we got the equaliser and scored a winner in the 93rd minute. "It does not matter whether you score goals at the start or end. A football game is never over until the final whistle. The most important thing is not to lose hope. When you are down, you've got to back yourself and believe you can win at any moment. "I salute my players for showing that spirit. The way we fought in this game should be a big boost for the rest of the games."
While his side kept faith until the final seconds, had they shown a bit more composure at the start, many fans would still have nails on their fingers. The UAE clearly had the better of the chances in the opening 45 minutes, but Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhoot failed to make any of them count. The lapses proved costly as Feyenoord striker Kermit Erasmus scored twice in the second half to put the UAE on the rack.
Mahdi Ali admits his players were not at the top of their game and promised a much-improved performance against Honduras tomorrow night "We missed too many chances and we've got to work hard to put these things right before the next game," he said. "I can promise you will see a much better performance in the next game." The South African coach Serame Letsoaka was gracious despite dropping two points in such a dramatic late fashion and said: "I must congratulate UAE on their comeback - they fought really well in the last few minutes and made it a great spectacle.
"They are the champions of Asia and they have just shown why. They are a great side, without doubt."