x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Olympics: Sometimes even a loss may feel like a win for a bit

For 19 minutes, it was all out there. An enormous upset. A clear path to the quarter-finals. And every Emirati who loves football, which apparently is all one million of them, had to be doing the arithmetic. Paul Oberjuerge writes from Manchester.

UAE's Amer Abdulrahman, left, fights for the ball with Uruguay's Gaston Ramirez during their men's Group A football match at Old Trafford.
UAE's Amer Abdulrahman, left, fights for the ball with Uruguay's Gaston Ramirez during their men's Group A football match at Old Trafford.

Was it the most sublime 19 minutes in the history of UAE football? Perhaps.

Well, probably. So far.

UAE 1, Uruguay 0.

At Old Trafford.

In the London 2012 Olympics.

Against the nation ranked No 3 in the world by Fifa.

Ismail Matar scored the UAE goal in the 22nd minute on one of the calmest finishes ever made by an Emirati in a big game, after a wonderful pass from Omar Abdulrahman, and for the next 19 minutes the UAE held at bay the Uruguay of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

As the first half ticked past the 40-minute mark, it was natural to begin thinking: "If they can get to the half with a lead, and Mahdi Ali perhaps makes some slight adjustments to make the side slightly more defence-minded in the final 45, well, that's three points on opening night!"

For 19 minutes, it was all out there.

An enormous upset.

A clear path to the quarter-finals.

And every Emirati who loves football, which apparently is all one million of them, had to be doing the arithmetic.

"A tie in Wembley against Team Great Britain probably will be enough, or a result against Senegal in the last game …"

Wasn't it grand?

The 19 minutes with the big "1" behind "UAE" and the fat, round "0" behind Uruguay?

As the lead held up for five, 10, 15 minutes.

Why couldn't it hold up through 90?

Then grim reality wrecked the Arabian Gulf reverie.

Gaston Ramirez, a tall midfielder who plays for the Italy club Bologna, stepped up to a free kick from 25 yards out, and directed a perfectly guided shot just over the UAE wall - over Matar, to be exact - and just past the face of Khalid Essa, and the ball travelled into the upper-right corner of the goal, where it was not supposed to be possible for Ramirez to score.

And although that goal only equalised, the notion of three points suddenly seemed as distant as Montevideo.

A half time, Ismail Al Mas, an Emirati sitting near the middle of the ground, about 11 rows from the field, said: "A draw would be a very good result."

His friend, Khalid Alwari, who like Al Mas played for Al Ahli with Mahdi Ali in the 1990s, agreed. "Our team is playing very well. Absolutely, I'm surprised, but we expect big things from these boys."

The second half began, and Uruguay seemed to shift to another gear, and just about the time when 70,000 people in Old Trafford were thinking, "Hmm, Uruguay is dominating things now", the substitute Nicolas Lodeiro slid the ball forward to Suarez, who returned it to the midfielder as he angled into the box, and Lodeiro struck it low and true, and it was 2-1 in the 55th minute.

The Emiratis faced an uphill slog after that.

Fatigue seemed to become a factor, as the constant Uruguay pressure began to take a toll.

The passes weren't as crisp.

The four- or five-pass combinations of the first half seemed to fade away.

Ahmed Khalil had one clear, but difficult, chance in the 77th minute.

Abdulrahman put the ball at his feet, and he had half a step on the defender, and a goal to shoot at even with the goalkeeper charging, and he put it just wide.

He covered his face with his hands.

Coaches and players don't talk about moral victories. Only fans and journalists do.

But that was one of them. A moral victory.

Matar played like he had been waiting 29 years to be in a game like this.

Omar Abdulrahman played like he should be in a game like that every week.

Amer Abdulrahman was strong, and so were many others.

For 19 wonderful minutes, 1,140 marvellous seconds, it had the feel of a victory.

With no "moral" attached.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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