x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Olympics 2012 an event to eclipse all others

With all due respect to the veterans of the 1990 World Cup, the UAE Olympic team are about to make the biggest splash in the nation's sports history.

Team Great Britain head coach Staurt Pearce, left, said he would not be dismissing any team's chances. Jamie McDonald / Getty Images
Team Great Britain head coach Staurt Pearce, left, said he would not be dismissing any team's chances. Jamie McDonald / Getty Images

This just got real.

Great Britain at Wembley Stadium. Uruguay at Old Trafford. Senegal at Coventry.

With all due respect to the veterans of the 1990 World Cup, the UAE Olympic team are about to make the biggest splash in the nation's sports history.

At Italia 1990, the UAE national team played two matches in the relative seclusion of Bologna. The third group game was, yes, at the San Siro, no small venue, against Germany, no small team.

But for big stages in a global event, in an era of infinitely greater media exposure, this event eclipses that one.

Twenty-two years later, the UAE Olympic team open London 2012 competition at Old Trafford against the 2010 World Cup semi-finalists. They move on to London and to Wembley Stadium, modestly known as "the spiritual home of football", capacity 90,000, to play the side modestly known as "masters of the game".

Along the way, they could meet elite foreigners such as David Beckham, Luis Suarez, Diego Forlan, Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba, and play before perhaps 150,000 spectators.

Ahem.

If the UAE win Group A (yes, we just went there), they get a quarter-final in Cardiff at the Millennium Stadium.

If they are second in the group, they return to Wembley. Perhaps against Mexico.

This is as real as real gets.

The UAE, no surprise, are being cast as the littlest fish in the Group A pond. The Telegraph newspaper wrote of the UAE: "It will be a big shock if they reach the knockout phase."

Garth Crooks, a BBC pundit, is unimpressed with the whole of Great Britain's competition: "I'm loathe to say it's an easy group, but it's an easy group," he said.

Mahdi Ali and the lads, however, will show up for the games, and not just promote Team GB and Uruguay to the quarter-finals on the basis of their records as former Olympic champions.

With the fixtures arranged, UAE preparations begin in earnest.

Sometime in mid-June the 45 players who have been invited by the Football Association will assemble at a training camp, probably in Switzerland.

The team will play at least six friendly matches, to help Mahdi Ali decide on who should be the 18 players on the Olympic squad, as well as the four players on the reserve list.

Crucial decisions will be made, including the identity of the three "over-age" players, if the FA choose to take them, as seems likely.

The list of Olympics-eligible players will be handed forward to London 2012 organisers no later than July 9.

Soon after, the team will go to England and set up a base somewhere near Manchester, where they will make final preparations for the July 26 opener at Old Trafford.

And this will not be a particularly pressing issue at the moment for Mahdi Ali, but on July 27 Opening Ceremonies will be held in London, and with the UAE already moving towards the capital for the July 29 match with Team GB at Wembley, perhaps the players and coaches could march in the Parade of Nations. People back home would love to see it.

About the competition: certainly, the UAE's elite footballers cannot take it personally that they are likely to be dismissed as contenders. The senior team are ranked No 121 in the world and already are out of qualifying for Brazil 2014.

The Olympic team can take inspiration from the unpredictable nature of Under 23 competition – and that is what the Olympics are, aside from the three over-age players. Cameroon won gold at Sydney 2000 and Nigeria at Spain 1996, and they did it ahead of the global superpowers.

The traditional group maths likely will be at work. If the Emiratis win one and draw one and finish with a goal differential on the plus side, their chances of advancing to the final eight are good.

Remember, too, that the bulk of the team Mahdi Ali will take to England, players like Omar Abdulrahman and Hamdan Al Kamali, Ahmed Khalil and Ahmed Ali, have never gone home early from any tournament.

Never. Including the 2009 Under 20 World Cup, where they reached the knockout phase.

Others may not expect them to survive the London 2012 group stage, but the Emiratis take it as a matter of faith that they will.

Old Trafford, Wembley and the Olympic Games. Team Great Britain, Uruguay and Senegal.

This is big. Enormous. And deliciously real for the UAE.

poerjuerge@thenational.ae

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