x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A UAE generation that's going for the gold

Young UAE side are on course to seal a berth at the London Games next year and that is a special feat.

The UAE fans were out in force last night to cheer on their Under 23 side to a 1-1 draw against North Korea in Al Ain. National
The UAE fans were out in force last night to cheer on their Under 23 side to a 1-1 draw against North Korea in Al Ain. National

The tricky part about this "golden generation" business is the disconnect between yearning generations and available gold. Not a one-to-one match. Not remotely.

To be sure, the current batch of Emiratis in the 20 to 23 age group is anything but ordinary, and the young men have the results to prove it. The Under 19 Asian Cup gold medal from 2008, the U20 World Cup quarter-finals in 2009, the Asian Games silver medal from 2010.

But when we speak of generations golden, most of us are thinking of the biggest of global football events, and so are they. In particular, the World Cup and the Olympic Games, where the best on the planet come to play. A golden generation probably should play in the final stages of those tournaments.

From that perspective, these young Emiratis still have some work to do, though they took another step along the road last night at Al Ain's Tahnoon bin Mohammed Stadium. A 1-1 score against North Korea yielded a 2-1 composite victory for the UAE and a place in the final 12 Asian nations competing for three-and-a-half berths at the 2012 London Games.

The UAE have never played football at an Olympics, and the country's first and only World Cup appearance was in 1990, an event so long ago that many members of the side that played last night were not yet born.

Much remains to be done, but getting past North Korea represents a significant milestone.

The modern Hermit Kingdom, actually a people's republic under the authority of Kim Il-sung, has been moving ahead in the world of football. Their national team played in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. And although there was a 7-1 rout by Portugal, the North Koreans held Brazil to a 2-1 score and were lauded, then, as a technically competent side.

North Korea were also seeded in the group ahead of the UAE; 13 nations had a bye into this round of continental qualifying, and North Korea were one of them. The UAE meanwhile, had to dismiss Sri Lanka to get into this tie, making the North Koreans the team the Asian Football Confederation's formula deemed more capable.

Like their brethren to the south, the North Koreans are known for pace and gumption and a fire that sometimes can cause problems. Such as the moment in the first half last night when Ri Sang-chol twice shoved the referee, a moment of madness that was shocking, and even more so that the official did not send off Ri.

This UAE side, under the leadership of the cerebral coach Mahdi Ali, has shown they do not let events overwhelm them. Even when the North Koreans scored the first goal, in the 19th minute.

They calmly went about their business, perhaps spurred by a big and loud crowd in Al Ain, worked the ball into the box and, even if they did not deserve the penalty awarded when Haboush Saleh fell over himself, Hamdan Al Kamali still came up and drilled the ball home, and the Emiratis resisted all North Korean attacks thereafter. In fact, the UAE had the better chances over the final 70 minutes.

If Ali is the brain behind these kids, the beating heart is the gifted central midfield duo of Amer Abdulrahman and Omar Abdulrahman. Both are small guys with big hair and special skills on the ball. They give the UAE an ability to hold and kill the clock and run opponents ragged.

But a golden generation has more than a couple of attacking midfielders, and this one has a fine holding midfielder in Mohammed Fawzi, a first-tier goalkeeper in Adel Al Hosani, an attacker good enough to start for Al Ahli in Ahmed Khalil; a two-way central defender in Mohammed Ahmed, who scored the goal in Pyongyang; and a rock in the back in Al Kamali, the captain. Plus lots of help.

Can they make it all the way to London 2012? They are already closer to the Games than the group who tried to get to Beijing in 2008.

In the next round, to be drawn on July 7, they will be placed in a four-team group with one of Asia's big three - Australia, Japan or South Korea. After each team play six times, the winners of the three groups book a place in London. The runners-up will have a further play-off to determine who meet an African team for a final berth.

Next up for many of these guys are places on the senior team, who play India next month to see if the UAE reaches the final 20 of Asian World Cup qualifying.

Not every golden generation wins Olympic or World Cup gold. But with a victory in the bank, the UAE's young bloods remain on course to win the Olympic variety of the most-sought-after medal, the sort that ultimately defines a special generation.