When the UAE U19 team left for the AFC Under 19 Championship in Saudi Arabia, there was not a hint of the euphoria that engulfs the nation now. Their departure to Dammam barely got a mention. Mahdi Ali, the coach of the side, is thankful for that. "Thank God, that did not happen," he said as his young heroes get ready for one last battle against Uzbekistan in the final tonight "We have tried to avoid media attention and it allowed the team to stay fully focused on the task at hand." Away from the spotlight, the youngsters battled hard to beat nine-time champions South Korea, five-time winners Iraq and Syria, also a previous winner of the title, in the group stages.
In the quarter-finals, they knocked out the hosts Saudi Arabia in one of their toughest games and then swamped Australia 3-0 in the semis. In a gruelling schedule, they played five games in 12 days and stayed unbeaten. They were bruised, but refused to quit. "I have to salute the resolve of the boys," said Ali. "During the break in the semi-finals, some of our players were injured and bruised, but none of them wanted to be replaced. They assured me that they wanted to continue."
That doggedness has brought the team to the brink of history and if they beat Uzbekistan tonight, they will become the first side from the Emirates to win the continental championship. And the players vow not to let the chance slip. "We are determined to win the final," said Ahmed Khalil, who opened the scoring against Australia with a fourth minute strike. "After all our struggles, I believe we have the right to return home with the Cup and dedicate it to our people, who deserve this joy."
Rashid Essa, who struck the second blow against the Aussies, added: "We will not let this chance slip. Uzbekistan are a very good side and probably have the best defence among all the teams here, but God willing, we will break down their resistance and take home the title. "We have a responsibility to continue our good work and we pray to God that we complete this journey with the cup in our hands. We are determined and we will fight till the last seconds."
The Uzbekistan coach Akhmad Ubaydullaev was candid enough to admit he was surprised to reach the final. "To be honest, I didn't expect before the competition that we would qualify for the final as our target was only the semi-finals," he said. The UAE coach, however, said: "That is his opinion, but I am not paying much heed to it. They are a good side and that is why they have reached the final. "We just need to focus on our game and be ready for every eventuality on the pitch."
The Australian coach Jan Versleijen also sees a bright future ahead for the side. "The team is developing quickly, qualification for the World Cup is a proof of that," he said. email@example.com