x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Don't blame coaches - local football talent is going nowhere

The UAE national football team is unlikely to qualify to the next World Cup. Blame the stagnation of senior players, not coaches.

Played two, lost two. The UAE's qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup was almost over before it began. The disastrous defeats to Kuwait and Lebanon - matches the UAE were expected to win - have already cost Coach Srecko Katanec his job, perhaps the least surprising development of the early season.

Not for the first time, the Football Association chose the easy way out. Katanec had lasted two years and he was one of the lucky ones. Astonishingly, his successor Abdullah Misfir, who took over the job last week, became the UAE's 17th appointment since the national team finished runners-up at the 1996 Asian Cup. At a rate of more than one coach a year, the chances of developing any stability, consistency and, ultimately, anything resembling a distinct playing style are almost nonexistent.

Condemnation after the two defeats was universal. The world's greatest footballer, now a local coach himself, may not have been scathing, but his comments were telling nonetheless. "When you start losing matches like the ones they did," said the new Al Wasl manager Diego Maradona, "I think we are faced with a team who has to improve a lot if they want to reach the World Cup finals."

A good point, although Maradona's fiery rhetoric may have been tamed in the interests of his new job.

Simply put, at a senior level the country is not developing world class footballers. The problem does not lie with the coaches. Not even Pep Guardiola and his tiki-taka philosophy could succeed without good, adaptable players.

And the UAE does continue, against the odds, to produce talented players at the youth level. Few, however, go on to fulfil their potential. Suspect attitude, complacency and lack of ambition have all been blamed.

The 2003 Under-20 Fifa World Cup, held in the UAE, introduced Ismail Matar, and the team went on to the quarter-finals. In 2007, Matar became the hero of the Gulf Cup triumph. In 2009 in Egypt, the Under-20s again made the quarter-finals, the under-19s won the Asian Cup in 2008, and the under-17s took the Gulf Cup in both 2006 and 2009. Players with superstar potential such as Ahmad Khalil of Al Ahli have emerged.

But the influx of foreign players into the league, not in itself a bad thing, means the younger generation will increasingly have fewer chances to shine.

On Saturday, Al Ain announced a year loan deal for the Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan, who becomes the latest high-profile player to come to the UAE league, joining Grafite at Al Ahli and David Trezeguet at Baniyas, among others.

Good news for short-term entertainment; not so great for the development of the game. International players improve the standard and raise the profile of the league, while their experience and professionalism should, in theory, benefit the local players. But younger UAE players will get less playing time.

The malaise in the game is exacerbated by the reluctance of UAE clubs to allow players to go abroad, a priceless way to gain experience.

Homegrown players inevitably suffer. The same is true in England, where less than 40 per cent of Premier League players are eligible for the national team. The situations, however, cannot be compared. In the UAE, the pool of players is significantly smaller, and the lack of opportunities is far more damaging. The net result is a lack of development at the senior level.

We still recall the pride felt by Emiratis and expatriates when the UAE qualified for the 1990 World Cup in Italy: a stunning achievement for a country less than 20 years old. The heroes of the team are still remembered, none more so than the finest Emirati player of all: Adnan Al Talyani, who scored 54 goals in 164 international matches. A 2003 testimonial match in his honour between Juventus and an international All-Star team attracted top players from around the world.

None of the country's current crop of players are held in such high esteem. And neither is the current side likely to emulate the golden generation of 1990 any time soon.

The thought is depressing. Just like watching those two games against Kuwait and Lebanon.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae