ABU DHABI // The UAE Football Association is so keen to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing scenes that marred last year's Club World Cup opening match that it has taken the unprecedented step of refusing to allow Al Wahda players to represent their country in November's Gulf Cup in Yemen.
Wahda, having won the Pro League title last season, will represent the Emirates at the 10-day tournament in the capital; an honour that was, last year, afforded to Al Ahli, the 2009 champions. The Dubai club appeared sluggish and sloppy when they competed in the December curtain raiser with Auckland City, a New Zealand amateur side who had won Oceania's premier competition, the O-League, for only the second time in their history.
Ahli lost the match 2-0 to end their continental campaign prematurely and bring disappointment to the domestic game. After the game Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi, the FA president, strongly criticised Ahli's preparations. Yesterday, at the ticket launch of the 2010 event, he said everything will be done to ensure Wahda have the opportunity to perform to their full potential in their opening match against Papua New Guinea's Hekari United on December 8 - even if it means seriously decreasing the UAE national team's hopes of silverware.
"Unfortunately Ahli started last season in very bad condition," said al Rumaithi. "They had lots of injuries and had not registered enough non-UAE players, so they entered the tournament with low morale. "In contrast, this year, Wahda look to be in much better shape. They have a good coach, good management and most of our national talent plays for them." Indeed, the UAE's last friendly match, a 3-0 win over Kuwait on September 7, saw four Wahda players start and Adel al Hosani, the goalkeeper, named among the substitutes.
However, al Rumaithi said that following an FA meeting on Saturday, no Wahda players will compete in the regional tournament to be held between November 22 and December 4. "The association met two days ago and we have taken the decision that we will not send Al Wahda players to Yemen to compete in the Gulf Cup. "This will allow the team to remain together longer and do the best they can at the Club World Cup," he said.
Ismail Matar, the UAE striker, became a local hero when he scored the only goal of the 2007 Gulf Cup final against Oman, gifting the Emirates their first and only title in front of an ebullient home crowd. But the 27-year-old said he understands the FA's position and is looking forward to representing Wahda at the intercontinental showpiece. "I think it is a good decision for us," said Matar, who has been capped 88 times by his country. "When you go to a tournament such as the Gulf Cup, you have to give 100 per cent and challenge for everything. If you get hurt then there is a problem because there is no time between the Gulf Cup and the Club World Cup.
"But for me personally, I would always prefer to play in the Club World Cup over the Gulf Cup anyway, because I have been there and won that. This is something new to me and offers an opportunity to play in front of a worldwide audience." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org