x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Football Association has spared no expense in getting this generation into the finest possible condition for the biggest occasion of their young lives so far.

The UAE Under 17 squad are put through their paves during a training session at Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
The UAE Under 17 squad are put through their paves during a training session at Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National

They are young, talented and very, very lucky. And they know it.

Not just because they have made the UAE squad for the Fifa Under 17 World Cup, and not only because the competition is taking place in their own backyard.

Over the past 12 months, the 21 Emiratis have been provided with training facilities and tours that would turn even senior international teams green with envy.

“The recent camps have been some of the best we’ve been on, we’ve been given everything we could possibly ask for,” goalkeeper Mohammed Khalid Al Mansoori said. “We have the best coaches and management, the best of everything, really.”

The Football Association has certainly spared no expense in getting this generation into the finest possible condition for the biggest occasion of their young lives so far.

“Our preparations over the last year have been excellent, the association has provided us with everything necessary to succeed at the World Cup,” the defender Feras Al Khasibi said. “For us players, the coaches and the management, we are all pursuing that target, and hopefully we can achieve.”

The squad’s travels over the past 16 months reads more like a rock band’s touring schedule.

A series of friendlies in Turkey last July, then a competition in Spain a month later. Another mini-tournament in Al Ain at the start of 2013, before a 16-match residency in the domestic U19 league.

July brought a return to Istanbul, and the hectic schedule was concluded with training camps in Malaysia and Spain in the last two months.

The results, and performances, have steadily improved throughout.

“The players have given their all,” striker Mohammed Al Akberi said. “It’s been one excellent performance after another. We’ve had great results.”

In fact, the most recent trip to Marbella brought three 1-1 draws against U17 world champions Mexico, South American champions Argentina and highly fancied Ivory Coast, as well as a 4-0 thrashing of Panama, another qualifier to the tournament.

It has been a long preparation period, and now the players are home for good. At times, it has been tough. Being away from family and friends for long stretches; getting used to foreign environments; and long hours of free time.

“We would often get some time off, which allowed us to walk around and just enjoy the cities we were in for about two hours,” Al Mansoori said. “But usually our focus was on training and on the tournament.”

The days, weeks and months on the road have produced a tight-knit group.

Ramadan, in 2012 and this year, was spent at training camps in Istanbul. The Holy Month is a time traditionally spent with family and friends, so it would be natural to expect a period of adjustment, maybe even homesickness.

But for the players, it was simply part of the job.

“Although it was Ramadan, the squad acclimatised very quickly,” Al Akberi said. “In any case, we keep in touch with our families back home at all times.”

Al Mansoori agreed, saying that even as far back as last summer, players had their eyes on the ultimate target; World Cup success on home soil.

“Look, we all knew that we have to sacrifice certain things,” the goalkeeper said. “If you’re aiming to achieve great things and make the country proud, you have to be willing to sacrifice.”

As they were observing fasting hours, the players had to adhere to a different type of itinerary than on other trips.

“During Ramadan, we stuck to a very well-organised schedule. First thing in the morning, we observed the Fajar prayers, got some rest, then more prayers,” Al Khasibi said. “We had a common room for the players, so we’d all get together to just hang out and chat, or even play cards or PlayStation.”

The players, however, had more pressing matters than worrying about what to do in their spare time. Training, for a start, and maintaining a healthy eating regimen.

“There is no real issue there, the medical team was very involved in our schedules, especially in regard to our meals,” Al Mansoori said. “They would make sure that our diets were adhered to and that restaurants knew exactly what we wanted and didn’t want, and they in turn worked closely with us.”

The serious business on the pitch was left for the evenings.

“We would have Iftar together, pray and then get changed and head for a couple of hours of training,” Al Khasibi said. “The rest of the time, whenever we got bored, we’d stick together and keep each other occupied, chatting and encouraging each other.”

There were no adverse effects, with Besiktas beaten 5-0 and Slovakia 3-1 during Ramadan.

Inevitably, talk among the squad would turn to their favourite players and teams. Clearly, there is a particular love of Latin football; but they all have Emirati idols they aspire to emulate.

“Ismail Matar, of course,” Al Akberi says of the man who came to prominence when the UAE held the 2003 Fifa Youth World Cup. Internationally, though, there adoration is all about the two Ronnies.

“I support Brazil, but my favourite player is someone who’s retired now, Ronaldo,” he said. “I’m also a fan of Real Madrid, and the other Ronaldo [Cristiano], of course. I hope one day to go watch them [at the Bernabeu].”

Al Mansoori, who considers UAE’s Gulf Cup-winning goalkeeper Ali Kasheif as his favourite player and inspiration, is less partisan than his teammate.

“Honestly, I don’t support any team. I just enjoy watching good football without any bias,” he says before acknowledging the popularity of two certain clubs among his teammates. “I’m happy to watch Barcelona or Real Madrid win, I have no problem with either.”

It is a little different when it comes to international teams.

“I like Spain and Italy,” he said. “Italy because of my favourite keeper [Gianluigi] Buffon, and Spain because of the style of football they play.”

The man who will be tasked with making sure Al Mansoori gets as little action as possible is, not surprisingly, inspired by two fellow defenders, at home and abroad.

“My favourite Emirati player is Ismail Ahmad,” Al Khasibi said of his Al Ain club mate. “I also enjoy watching Argentina, and my favourite player is Javier Zanetti.”

The Inter Milan legend, for the record, won an Olympic silver medal with his country in 1996, the year Al Khasibi was born.

Now, the UAE have a chance of making international football history themselves.

Their coach, Rashid Amir, has labelled the UAE’s opener against Honduras on Thursday as a must-win match, and says he is looking no further than that. For the fans, however, it is impossible not to have an eye on the clash against Brazil three days later.

The players, for their part, are doing a good job sticking to the party line – take one match at a time and treat all opposition teams equally.

“The most important thing is to concentrate on the first match,” Al Akberi said. “Hopefully all my family and friends will be present to support us.”

Al Khasibi said: “We’ve prepared ourselves for any team, every single one. Brazil, Argentina, any team.”

The goalkeeper, who believes the fans are “the No 1 player”, was even more bullish.

“As I said, the preparations couldn’t be any better, and we are ready for any situation in any match,” Al Mansoori said. “No fear, not from Brazil, and not from any other team.”

For the three youngsters and the rest of their teammates, the time for preparation, and talk, is over.

Bring on the football.

akhaled@thenational.ae

UAE squad

Goalkeepers

1. Mohammed Khalid Al Mansoori (Al Jazira), 17. Mohammed Al Shamsi (Al Wahda), 20. Zayed Ahmed Al Hammadi (Al Dhafra)

Defenders

2. Rashed Ahmad (Al Nasr), 3. Khalid Mohammed (Al Shabab), 4. Sultan Al Badrani (Al Ain), 5. Ahmed Rashid (Al Wahda), 14. Feras Al Khasibi (Al Ain)

Midfielders

6. Abdullah Al Hammadi (Al Dhafra), 7. Sultan Al Shamsi (Al Jazira), 10. Ibrahim Lashkari (Al Nasr), 13. Abdullah Omar (Al Ain), 15. Humaid Salmein (Al Ahli), 19. Ali Ghuloum (Al Ahli), 21. Shaheen Surour (Al Jazira)

Forwards

8. Faisal Hussain (Al Jazira), 9. Mohammed Al Akberi (Al Wahda), 11. Khaled Khalfan (Al Ain), 12. Abdullah Kazim (Al Wasl), 16. Zayed Al Ameri (Al Jazira), 18. Suhail Alnoobi (Baniyas)