x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Mahdi Ali must keep trust in youth to bring back the crowds

Games against minnows such as Estonia do little to fire UAE fans' imagination, but players such as Omar Abdulrahman can help put bums on seats.

The UAE senior team, not for the first time, played in front of mostly empty crowds during a recent international friendly. Mahdi Ali's men beat Estonia 2-1 at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. Satish Kumar / The National
The UAE senior team, not for the first time, played in front of mostly empty crowds during a recent international friendly. Mahdi Ali's men beat Estonia 2-1 at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. Satish Kumar / The National

Few sights in football are more depressing than an empty stadium. Without the humanity and passion that a crowd brings, even the most stunning stadium, a Camp Nou or a Maracana, is nothing more than a lonely combination of concrete and plastic.

Beauty, sometimes, finds a way. The defiance of a handful of fans lost in a sea of empty seats. Or rain falling under floodlights to the backdrop of a vacant stand. But it remains a beauty mired in sadness. Mostly, empty stadiums are ugly.

For too long, the UAE national team's matches have been played to largely empty stadiums. On Wednesday night, fewer than 400 fans were present at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium to watch the UAE defeat Estonia 2-1 in a friendly match.

On the pitch, the performance was cause for restrained celebration. In the stands, it was the same old story.

As results have suffered, resulting in a painfully early exit from the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, UAE fans have increasingly stayed away. And attendances were not much to shout about to begin with.

Poor results and supporter apathy feed into each other. And never has the disconnect between team and supporters been more apparent than on Wednesday. Matches like these, it seems, do little to fire the imagination of the fans.

"We invite teams that we know we can beat," one fan said before adding. "Why don't we invite bigger teams like Brazil and Germany?"

Ambitious thinking perhaps, but it should be remembered that it is not the likes of that young Emirati that need preaching to; after all, he was there.

That it was UAE's last home friendly before January's Gulf Cup of Nations in Bahrain only highlighted the public's ambivalence.

And it was not lost on those present that, as their shouts echoed around an empty stadium, Qatar, Lebanon, Iraq, Oman and Jordan were all taking part in World Cup qualifiers more than a year after the UAE had been eliminated.

"Baniyas against Al Ain are playing now," one teenager said to his friend during a lull in the action. Has it really come to this?

In truth, new coach Mahdi Ali's brave new world is already showing signs of bearing results. The first half of his fifth match in charge may have been a low-key affair, Hamdan Al Kamali's penalty cancelled on the stroke of half time.

But things improved in the second half with the introduction of Al Ain's Omar Abdulrahman, the UAE's outstanding player at the London Olympics.

He immediately set about lifting the gloom, the melancholy metre dipping with every touch of his magical left foot. While the level of those around him improved as well, it was clear that "Amoori", as he is affectionately called by fans and teammates, easily remains his country's most talented player.

Pass after pass found its target. And instant control and impudent flicks illuminated the play. Chants of "give it to Amoori," echoed from the crowd.

Expect more members of the Olympic Under 23 squad that performed so heroically in the summer to make the transition to senior squad. Indeed, the UAE's youth teams continue to provide the best hope for the future.

True, when the Asian Under 19 Championship wrapped up in Ras Al Khaimah last night, the UAE's youngsters were envious observers, having been knocked out in the group stage. But looking ahead to next year, another set of UAE youngsters will have a shot at glory when the Under 17 World Cup takes place across the seven emirates in June. The UAE have qualified as hosts.

The Gulf Cup, however, is the most immediate opportunity to raise the hopes of a country in danger of falling out of love with its national team. And with Mahdi Ali increasingly putting his trust in those whose performances in London helped him get the job, fans can be cautiously optimistic of a repeat of 2007, the only time they won the tournament.

Those players, led by the likes of Abdulrahman, Al Kamali, Al Wasl's Rashed Eisa and Al Ahli's Ahmed Khalil now have chance to banish the underachievement that has surrounded the senior national team for so long.

"You saw the difference Omar makes," said one fan at the final whistle. "We need to play the young players all the time, maybe then more people will come and watch."

And perhaps then UAE international matches would cease to be depressing affairs. Especially if they keep giving the ball to Amoori.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

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