The UAE players had yet to lift the silver Gulf Cup and already the gifts were pouring in. As the captain Ismail Matar, the player of the tournament and goalscoring hero Omar Abdulrahman and the rest of their teammates celebrated their 2-1 final victory over Iraq on that glorious evening of January 18, the jubilant presenters on Abu Dhabi Sports were already announcing that millions of dirhams were being donated to the team.
Acknowledgement of their achievement also came from the highest of offices. Within minutes, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, was on the telephone congratulating Mahdi Ali’s young champions for bringing joy to the nation and announcing that they will receive a royal welcome by the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE, on their return home the following day.
Since coming back from Bahrain, the reaction of the grateful players, perhaps the nation’s most popular senior side in years, has been heartening. While accepting the acclaim and gifts (which eventually totalled Dh174 million), there was no danger of their heads being turned by this success.
To them, the triumph is seen as the start of a new era of development in UAE football, as the team’s goalkeeper was keen to point out.
“As for the media reports that every player is getting Dh2m or Dh3m, that is absolutely not true,” Ali Khaseif, the Al Jazira stopper said. “Most of the money will go to the UAE Football Association, not the players. It will go to the FA for developing the grass roots game, for travel [expenses] for international games and hotels for the players.”
Certainly in the past, any success, or relative success, by the senior side has been followed by longer stretches of underachievement; and a sense of anticlimax that opportunities to build on decent results have been missed due to lack of long-term planning and lack of stability. Over the last two decades, few coaches have lasted beyond two years in the UAE hot seat.
The situation today is different.
For a start, there seems little danger that Mahdi Ali’s young champions will be allowed to believe their own hype. Since becoming the assistant coach to the UAE Under 16 team in 2003, the 47 year old has cast a fatherly eye on many of the players he now coaches at senior level, and they have responded with maturity beyond their years.
“Out of respect for the players and the Rulers who gave the money, I do not want to say how much the players got,” Khaseif said.
There is a sense that the players are already looking forward to their next big challenges: qualification to the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, and further down the line, the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
To hit those twin targets, it is vital the system that has produced the likes of Matar, Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout remains successful.
The extra financial backing can only help to produce players from relatively small population base.
And the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, when the stars of the 2013 Gulf Cup win will be entering their 30s, will be a test of how successful the system is. Hopefully, a new batch of Abdulrahmans and Matars will have emerged.
It was not always like this. Success by the senior side, most notably reaching the 1990 World Cup in Italy, was not built upon.
That generation of players, led by the great, Adnan Al Talyani, continued to prosper – they were unlucky in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, losing just once, and in 1996 reached the Asian Cup final in Abu Dhabi only to lose to an excellent Saudi Arabia side on penalties.
Sadly, there was little talent emerging in their wake. The lack of continuity and stability made transitions between the age groups far rarer than today. The lessons, it appears, have been learnt.
Today, the FA’s set up allows for little of the stagnation that led to a barren period. In fact, the origins of the success in Bahrain can be traced back to over a decade ago when the FA embarked on a long-term project of developing players that could compete at various levels on the world stage.
First came the 2003 Fifa Under 20 World Cup, held in the Emirates. The tournament, in which the UAE reached the quarter-finals, produced Matar, who would go on to become the hero of the 2007 Gulf Cup triumph, also held at home.
But it is the success of this age group – Under 19 Asian Champions in 2008, Under 20 World Cup quarter-finals in 2009 and reaching the 2012 Olympics as an Under 23 squad – all under the watchful eye of Mahdi Ali, that has led to belief that this generation of players, and the next one, can go on to achieve sustained success at senior level.
Arguably, it is the coach’s rise through the ranks that has provided the final ingredient to that winning formula. After years of mostly failed experiments under foreign coaches, with the notable exception of Bruno Metsu in 2007, here finally is an Emirati who has managed to foster an astonishing team spirit and winning mentality.
And that, as the players would tell you, is the greatest gift of all.
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