x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Olympic fate is back in hands of youngsters

Add the three players missing last night to the gritty guys who made one goal stand up for 87 minutes last night, and this team is back in business.

The country had hope but not expectations for the senior national side and the 2014 World Cup. For the UAE Olympic team, however, the bar always had been set higher, encompassing both hope and expectations of an orderly advance to the bright lights of the London 2012 Games.

When the national team collapsed to five consecutive defeats in the second-last stage of Asia qualifying for Brazil 2014, disappointment at their demise was keen but measured.

Supporters knew that winning one of four World Cup berths allocated to a continent with a half-dozen rising global powers would be very difficult.

It would have salved the nation's football pride to win a point or three, but the grudging realisation that "this will not end well" was widely shared.

The unpleasant reality just hit home a bit sooner than expected.

But those Olympic youngsters? A different story entirely.

Surely those bright-eyed young players would come through, as they so often had while bringing home medals and trophies as we watched them grow up.

Their CVs included the Under 19 Asian Cup gold medal from 2008, the U20 World Cup quarter-finals in 2009 and the Asian Games silver medal from 2010.

There was nothing those lads couldn't do, and they seemed so assured and confident in doing it that many of them were called up to the senior side before the 20th birthdays. Those young men had been touched by greatness, and neither time nor football officials would wait.

Confidence mushroomed last year when the Olympic team was placed in a four-team qualifying group with Australia, Uzbekistan and Iraq; the UAE had escaped Japan and South Korea, for whom the Olympic football tournament is a quadrennial appointment.

And when the Emirati youngsters opened the campaign by winning a point for a scoreless draw in Australia, the path to London looked straight and wide.

Then came the baffling and piercing disappointments.

A scoreless draw at home to Uzbekistan. A 2-0 defeat at home to Iraq, and a dive to the bottom of the table ahead of last night's make-or-break match in Doha against Iraq.

The failure of the Olympic team to take control of their London fate compounded the gloom of the senior side's failures.

Earlier, their had been used to as a cudgel to pummel the former national team coach, Srecko Katanec. But now they echoed those sad results, rather than mocked them.

It seemed wholly unnatural. A UAE football team in the Olympics, and for the first time, had become assumed.

It was probably no coincidence that the Football Association refused the resignation of their president, Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithi, after the national team's first two disastrous defeats, but accepted it in December, a few days after the Olympic team's defeat to Iraq.

Mahdi Ali, the Olympic team coach, last night said the four months of steady defeat for the nation's two most prominent teams seemed of a piece.

"We were always playing after the first team, and we have many players in the first team, and they come back with a bad result, and the morale is bad, a bad feeling because they have lost the game," he said.

"We tried to change this in a short time, but we also lost a brother and a friend" when the national and Under 23 midfielder Theyab Awana died in a car accident in September.

"All these things happened at the same time, losing the first game, losing our brother, many players injured, many players who played two games with only seven days rest.

"It was a bad situation. The timing was bad. That's why the team was not playing to its level. But I'm sure this game will give us more motivation."

"This game" was the 1-0 victory over Iraq last night that jumped the UAE to second in Group B. Uzbekistan have eight points to the UAE's five, but that suddenly doesn't seem like an enormous gap.

Especially if Hamdan Al Kamali is available for the last two group-play matches, including the trip to Uzbekistan, as well as the mending attackers Ahmed Khalil and Omar Abdulrahman.

Add those three, missing last night, to the gritty guys who made one goal stand up for 87 minutes last night, the scorer Ahmed Ali, the forward Ali Mabkhout, the playmaker Amer Abdulrahman, the keeper Khalid Essa, the slashing winger Rashid Essa and the marauding right-back Mohammed Abdulaziz, and this team is back in business.

Hope has returned. As well as expectations. The would-be Olympians know the drill.

 

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