x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Big brother Matar leads by example for UAE

The senior forward talks about playing through the pain barrier and UAE’s chances of winning next year’s Gulf Cup.

Ismail Matar, centre, has played in three international games for the national side this year.
Ismail Matar, centre, has played in three international games for the national side this year.

As Ismail Matar sat on the stage at the Armani Hotel ballroom yesterday, ready to sign an endorsement deal, clips of his wonderful goal against Uruguay at the London Olympics in July were being played behind him on the screen.

He raced into the penalty box, drawing the Uruguay goalkeeper out, and then halted briefly as the gloveman slid in at his feet.

Matar turned away and, taking a couple of hurried steps, placed the ball between two defenders, who had rushed back to cover their keeper.

The 29 year old has probably scored better goals, but that one at Old Trafford will always be special to him.

It put him in the record books as the first Emirati to score at an Olympic Games.

"For me, all the goals are the same because they make the fans happy," he said. "Of course, I am proud to be the first Emirati to score at the Olympics. I have watched it a few times and I hope the people here enjoyed it as well."

Matar's goal had given the UAE a 23rd minute lead against Uruguay, but they conceded twice later to lose the game.

Mahdi Ali's team then won the hearts of a packed Wembley Stadium in the 3-1 loss to Great Britain. Against Senegal, Matar again gave the UAE an early lead, but the Africans equalised in the second half and the country's Olympic dream came to an early end.

"In the end, we did not get the results we had wished for, but it was a good time and a great experience," said Matar, who was the Golden Ball winner at the 2003 Youth World Cup, ahead of players such as Carlos Tevez and Andres Iniesta.

"I am so happy I was there and got an opportunity to play, to see the amazing fans in England.

"It's really the difference when you play here and you play there. The atmosphere is great and they really enjoy watching football. They enjoy everything you do on the field.

"If we could have even a little of that atmosphere here, it would be great."

Matar also enjoyed being part of the Under 23 squad that has been described as the "Golden Generation" of UAE football and many of them have now graduated to the senior national side that defeated Bahrain so convincingly in the fourth of a series of friendlies on Tuesday night.

"We beat Bahrain 6-2 and it is the biggest result in history between these two teams," Matar said.

"I don't think we have ever scored six against Bahrain or they have scored six against us.

"So this was a really good result and before that we drew with Uzbekistan. They are No 5 in Asia.

"Japan are No 1 and we lost to them in the first game, but we played well. Four days back, Japan beat France in France. So I think we have had really good results in these last four games and we hope to continue on the same path.

"I believe we are a good team, but of course we have still not reached our peak levels because we are still trying out different players, mixing the Olympic squad and the senior players."

The Olympic team have won Gulf titles at every age group level. Their big moment came at the 2008 Asian Under 19 Championships, when the UAE romped to the title. It earned them a ticket to the 2009 World Youth Cup, where they impressed in reaching the quarter-finals.

The same group then became the first UAE football team to qualify for the Olympics and Matar, who was in the squad as an over-age player, was given the captain's armband.

"We would be on PlayStation or play cards sometimes," said Matar about the long preparatory camps for the London Games.

"It was a really, really good time. Sometimes it can get boring because it is too long, but we did different things together and we really enjoyed as a group.

"I am the big brother for them, but I had played with some of those players before because they were a part of the first team as well. There were a few players from Al Wahda also.

"So we are a really close group even outside the pitch or camps because we are, you can say, from the same neighbourhood."

After the Olympics Mahdi Ali was handed the reins of the national team.

"Mahdi Ali is a good coach and he has been proving that since his time with the youth team," Matar said.

"He was very successful with them, in every tournament, and took the team to the Olympics as well.

"It was a historic moment for the UAE because we qualified for the Olympics for the first time, and with a local coach. That is something special and I hope he continues his success with the senior national team."

Matar said he is pleased with the way the national side performed in their four friendlies - against Japan, Kuwait, Uzbekistan and Bahrain - and thinks they could have a good chance at the Gulf Cup in January.

"I believe the Gulf Cup is tougher than playing in Asia because we [the Gulf states] are a family and when you play against each other, there is a lot more aggression on the field," he said.

"So it will be really tough, but we have a chance to win the title."

Matar has played in only one of those four friendly matches, though, as a nagging knee injury has resurfaced.

He sought treatment for it in Germany and returned to the UAE after being given the second of a three-injection course.

"It was really short," Matar said. "I flew on Sunday and was back on Tuesday night.

"I got my injection and a date for the next appointment, which will be on the 16th of next month, the same day that I get the last injection.

"I am feeling good and I hope to continue this treatment. There has been a lot of improvement.

"I have played four games [for Al Wahda] and one friendly for the national team, and I think I was in good shape.

"There is still some pain, but this is part of me now."

arizvi@thenational.ae

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