New coach and new hope after national team crashed out of the Gulf, Asian and World cups.
A second half full of promise
A year ago, as the clock ticked towards 2009, the senior national football team was in a bit of a shambles. The Whites had not tasted victory since the beginning of June 2008, losing six of their 10 games in the second half of the year. Defeats at home to North Korea and Saudi Arabia had wrecked their start to the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and consequentially coach Bruno Metsu walked away, leaving his assistant Dominique Bathenay saddled with the repair job.
The Frenchman, not everyone's favourite for the position, took the team to Oman for the defence of their Gulf Cup crown in the New Year and returned after just three games, failing to progress beyond the group stages. Starting with a 3-1 win over minnows Yemen, they played a 0-0 draw with Qatar before crashing out with a 3-0 defeat by Saudi Arabia. A 5-0 Asian Cup qualifier win in Malaysia suggested Bathenay and his team could still be battling for at least the play-off berth for the 2010 World Cup, but those dreams were shattered by defeats in North Korea and Saudi Arabia.
South Korea dumped more misery on the team with a 2-0 win in the UAE and Bathenay's tenure ended with a 1-0 loss in Tehran. The team finished the 2010 World Cup qualifiers with just one point from eight games, leaving the fans and the football establishment disillusioned. Bathenay, as expected, was shown the door and the hunt for a new coach began in earnest. As names like Arrigo Sacchi and Luiz Felipe Scolari were being bandied around, the Football Association sprang a surprise by picking a "little-known" Slovenian, Srecko Katanec, as Bathenay's successor.
The fans and media were, of course, not too pleased with the choice, but the bosses were convinced they had got the right man for the job in the former Yugoslav international and Slovenian coach. And they were right. Given the job in June, Katanec had a good three months before his first game, a 1-1 draw against Palestine in October. That was followed by wins over Jordan, Manchester City and the Czech Republic.
After six games, his report card reads three wins and a loss, and heading towards his first match in official competition - the January 6 Asian Cup qualifier at home against Malaysia - there is much optimism around the team. The success of the youth team at the Under 20 World Cup, of course, has also added to the spirits. Going to Egypt as Asian champions, Mahdi Ali's team reached the quarter-finals before crashing out in a heartbreaking extra-time loss to Costa Rica.
Every neutral observer agreed UAE were the better team and did not deserve to lose. Still, Hamdan al Kamali, the captain, and his band had made the nation proud and returned home to a hero's welcome. Players like al Kamali, Amer Abdulrahman, Ahmed Ali and Ahmed Khalil were among the stars of the tournament and should be carrying the hopes of the nation over the next decade. There is also some promising talents from the U17 team, who reached the second round of the World Cup in Nigeria, waiting in the wings.