x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Olympics: UAE football team up for Team Great Britain test

To play at Wembley, against Team GB, before a crowd of 90,000, will ensure that the core of this team will never be intimidated by anything Asia throws at them.

Ismail Matar's early goal for the UAE against Uruguay has given them confidence as they sense an opportunity.
Ismail Matar's early goal for the UAE against Uruguay has given them confidence as they sense an opportunity.

Team Great Britain. At Wembley Stadium. July 29.

This always was going to be the emotional and spiritual zenith for the UAE during their London 2012 football campaign: the masters of the game in the grand arena of the game.

And now the match is freighted with extra meaning for the host nation as well as the visitors.

Before the draw to this tournament, the UAE's most significant sporting moment since the 1990 World Cup, Mahdi Ali said he did not care about their group opponents - as long as Team GB were not one of them. "I prefer not to play against the host," he said.

But now the match is upon us, this could not be better.

Win, lose or draw, the experience will be a teaching moment for this Emirati team, who will be, with one or two exceptions, the UAE senior national team from the moment their Olympic journey ends.

To play at Wembley, against Team GB, before a crowd of 90,000, following on the match at Old Trafford before 70,000, will ensure that the core of this team will never be intimidated by anything Asia throws at them. Not 40,000 in Pyongyang or even 100,000 in Tehran.

The Emiratis are under the brightest of spotlights now, and they showed in the 2-1 loss to Uruguay they will not shrink from the occasion. Several of them may have been left straining to sustain the pace of that game, but the elite levels of any sport are played at the highest velocity, and that, too, should be imprinted on their psyches for future use and reference.

While the result was a disappointment, the Emiratis came away from the match knowing they belong here. Perhaps they already sensed it, but now it is incontrovertible fact. Uruguay were happy and relieved to defeat them.

The UAE side's reaction to the game was frustration at a missed opportunity, not self-congratulation for competing. "We deserved at least a draw," said Mahdi Ali.

The UAE coach never complains about referees, but he could not resist noting that his side had been gifted only one free kick over 90 minutes, tartly suggesting that the New Zealand referee had treated Uruguay "like angels".

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The Emiratis believe a place in the second round can still be theirs, and Team GB's 1-1 draw with Senegal, Africa's No 4 Under 23 side, will have done nothing to make them shy of the encounter with the hosts. "All roads," Mahdi Ali said, "are open to the next stage."

If any team in this tournament are suffused with self-doubt at the moment, it must be Team GB. Their side are uninspiring, coming from such a footballing nation, and it was rich when Ryan Giggs led the chorus of complaints about Senegal's rough style.

What, the strapping Britons of yore now prefer a dainty tick-a-tacka game? This is the island kingdom that invented the clattering tackle. Team GB also know they must defeat the UAE, who the British media had described as the weakest side in the tournament, or confront the risk of being excused from the competition, on home soil, even before they can lose to someone in the inevitable shoot-out.

This match, at Wembley, also beckons because of the ties between the UAE and the United Kingdom. The Trucial States connection of the previous two centuries seems to have fostered a sense of genuine fondness, from Emiratis toward Britannia.

"London is our second home" is a statement nearly any Emirati could make, and competing in that city is full of allure, not horror.

Performance anxiety in this case is reserved for Team GB, who already are being picked apart by their countrymen for apparent failings in selection, preparation and tactics.

For the UAE, opportunity beckons. If they can win even one point, they go to the final match with a chance to advance. And several of their key players, notably the forward Ahmed Khalil, are likely to be sharper than they were against Uruguay.

One could hear a gentle sarcasm in Mahdi Ali's voice when he spoke of the coming challenge. "We will sit together to see what should be done for the GB game. It's a tough test playing at Wembley against the home team backed with enthusiastic fans at the greatest venue. But we will manage it."

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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