x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Al Jazira midfielder takes late volley into Olympic big time

Al Jazira's Khamis Esmail has impressed all in quick time and wants to make the opportunity count at London.

From the sidelines at Al Jazira to a Olympic team member, Khamis Esmail has seen a meteoric rise in his career in the last one year.
From the sidelines at Al Jazira to a Olympic team member, Khamis Esmail has seen a meteoric rise in his career in the last one year.

A year ago, Khamis Esmail was a little-known Al Jazira midfielder who rarely escaped the substitutes' bench and had never appeared in a match for a national side.

Today, he is an "ambassador" for the Adidas Predator boot, a likely key performer for the London 2012 UAE Olympic team and an aspiring transfer target for a major European side.

"It's really good that all of this has happened very fast and that I gained so much confidence from Jazira and the national team," Esmail said yesterday. "But that doesn't make me forget that I have to train really well and work on myself to be a better player."

Much of the Under 23 team which forms the core of the Olympic squad have been together since they were teenagers.

Esmail, 22, is one of the surprise newcomers to the group. His debut was in the 1-0 victory over Iraq in February, and he was in the starting XI for subsequent victories over Australia and Uzbekistan that clinched a first Olympic berth for the country.

"He has become one of the main guys in midfield," said Kefah Al Kaabi, a football pundit and television analyst.

"He has a good body; our main players in midfield are always short, but this guy has the body and the talent. The No 6 is a problem in all our teams, but we may have a very good player in that place now, both on the Olympic team and the senior team, too."

Esmail is a holding midfielder, and his ability to break up attacks has been noted, as well as his knack for quickly switching to attack.

As the Olympic team prepares to leave on Saturday for a pre-Olympic training camp in Switzerland, Esmail is expected to vie for a starting position in central midfield with Amer Abdulrahman, Habib Fardan and Mohammed Fawzi.

It is no surprise that Esmail appeared late on the radar of Mahdi Ali, the Olympic team coach.

Esmail concentrated on playing volleyball, in his native Ras Al Khaimah, until he was 16 and a sibling suggested he could win greater acclaim and a bigger income as a footballer.

"All the boys in our family played volleyball," Esmail said through an interpreter.

"But my older brother, Zayed, saw me playing football and asked me to switch because football is more popular, and for that I changed."

He soon signed with Emirates club, and in the 2009/10 season he appeared in 12 Pro League games and also played in the President's Cup final won by Emirates over Al Shabab.

He moved to Jazira in the middle of their 2010/11 league and President's Cup double season and appeared in only four league games. But he recalls the half season as a time of growth.

"It was very difficult to come in and be one of the first team on a club with such big players like Ricardo Oliveira and Matias Delgado," he said.

"But I fought really hard to get better. I got the experience I wanted, especially from Subait Khater. He always gave me advice on what to do and how to play and what makes him a very good player.

"For sure, he's an experienced captain for the national team, and I got really good advice from him when I played next to him or against him in training."

When the 2011/12 season began, Esmail was a regular in the Jazira first team. He was not called in to the Under 23 team's first three final group qualifiers, which yielded two scoreless draws and a defeat, but he was honing his skills in the domestic top flight.

He played in Jazira's first 11 league games, and scored a last-minute equaliser to salvage a 2-2 draw with Al Nasr.

Mahdi Ali noticed his rise in prominence and efficiency, and when the Olympic team reassembled in mid-January, Esmail had joined them.

The UAE were bottom in their group, but had nine points to play for, and Esmail recalled a side and a coach with plenty of fight left in them. "The coach and the whole team had confidence," he said. "And when we won against Iraq, we regained all our confidence and knew we had the opportunity to go forward to the Olympics.

"The game against Australia, we had a very full stadium, and we had a really good feeling and drew energy from the people, and that was an important victory over a big team."

At the final qualifier, in Tashkent, where the winner was guaranteed a berth in the Summer Games, Esmail said the Emiratis were not smug but fully expected to defeat Uzbekistan.

"The circumstances were bad," he said. "The weather was not good at all, and the pitch was not good, but we played as a team, and even after receiving two goals we fought and didn't lose confidence" in a 3-2 victory.

"And now we have the opportunity to play against the big players and the big teams in London."

He hopes to train well enough to gain a place in the starting XI in England, where the Emiratis will have a chance to impress talent evaluators while playing Uruguay at Old Trafford, Great Britain at Wembley and Senegal at Coventry.

His profile is a bit higher, too, in that he is one of only four ambassador's for the Predator boot in the Middle East.

He feels expectations and foresees opportunity. "It's an amazing thing to be with Adidas, like David Beckham, and it will be a push for me to give more and be a better player. Such a big company showing an interest in me is a responsibility for me.

"Playing at Wembley and Old Trafford, and against players like Suarez and Beckham, who are in the same group, is a great opportunity for me to show how good I am and how I am willing to go forward and maybe go to a European club."

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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