x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Emiratis are flying the flag all over

And then the planets clicked into alignment and we arrived at a potential turning point in the history of UAE football.

And then the planets clicked into alignment and we arrived at a potential turning point in the history of UAE football. A moment when grand achievements across the spectrum of the sport suddenly are within reach and the possibilities are profound.
Regionally, in the Gulf Cup, where the national team have a chance to reach the semi-finals after clawing their way to a point against the Asian champions Iraq when Majed Naser coolly pushed away a penalty in the 88th minute.
Continentally, in the Asian Games, where the Under 23 team play for a gold medal in China today after consecutive tension-fraught victories positioned them 90 minutes from a championship.
Internationally, in the Club World Cup, where Al Wahda, the Pro League champions, have the chance to play Inter Milan in a match that could be seen by tens of millions of people around the world.
All of it is out there, to play for. Matches and results that could see the country's football profile grow exponentially over the next 20 days. Where to start?
With the Olympic team in Guangzhou, where the young men reflexively referred to as "the golden generation" can validate that appellation with a gold medal with a victory over Japan.
A championship there arguably would be the most significant in UAE football history.
The bracing victory in the 2007 Gulf Cup will not be soon forgotten, but that was an eight-nation event, played at home. The Asian Games began 6,000km from the UAE with a field of 24, including sides from three countries who played in the 2010 World Cup and arrived in China with squads that looked very much like their senior national teams.
To go into that environment, so far from home, and defeat competitors such as South Korea and North Korea, speaks to the talent, cohesion and grit of Mahdi Ali's team.
The talent in the Under 23 side is such, and the Wahda players withheld as they prepare for Club World Cup so vital, that the national team assembled by Srecko Katenec for the Gulf Cup is missing several men who normally would have played in the Iraq match on Tuesday night.
But salvaging a point from a scoreless draw demonstrates the growing depth of talent among Emirati footballers. The country is, essentially, fielding two national sides at once.
With matches ahead against Oman and Bahrain, and all four teams in the Gulf Cup Group B on one point, a victory and a draw should put the UAE into the semi-final - a significant achievement in a tournament where the other seven nations are not simultaneously playing in the Asian Games and preparing for the Club World Cup.
And then we have Wahda, whose potential rewards in the Club World Cup can hardly be overstated. If little Hekari United can be dismissed in the December 8 opener, and Seongnam of South Korea defeated three days later, the Pro League champions not only would have beaten the Asian club champions, they would be in line for a semi-final match with the European champions Inter Milan, a team which attracts attention like few others. To be on the same pitch with the side that vanquished Barcelona, Bayern Munich, et al, would present Wahda and the Pro League with an unparalleled chance to show their quality to the world.
The Pro League already is proving its value in the achievements of the two national sides currently playing; every man on each team plays for one of the 12 league clubs, the "real job" that keeps something like 250 Emirati footballers in a high state of preparedness and, indeed, helped train up many of them from childhood.
The Asian Games. The Gulf Cup. The Club World Cup. Hold on: these three weeks could be quite a ride.
poberjuerge@thenational.ae