Abdulrahman Mohammed, captain of the UAE team that made it to the 1990 World Cup, calls for players to be allowed to ply their trade abroad.
Clinging on to the heady days of 1990
DUBAI // The UAE FA was founded in 1971. Nineteen years later, the country qualified for the World Cup, Emiratis were getting their Italian visas organised and an era of Asian domination beckoned. But that remains the high watermark. This summer the UAE team will watch the 2010 World Cup from the comfort of their own homes after failing to register a single victory from a qualifying group that included North and South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran - none of whom command a place in the top 50 of Fifa's World Rankings.
More worrying though is that the disappointment came as no surprise; it will be the fifth tournament since Italia 90 that the UAE have failed to qualify for. Since Mario Zagallo led them to Italy two decades ago, the FA's determination for success has seen 20 coaches come and go - including illustrious names such as Roy Hodgson, Dick Advocaat and Carlos Quiroz. And while the UAE was world No 51 when Fifa first revealed their official rankings in 1993, they have since slipped 50 places. In August of this year they reached their nadir, an all-time low of No 124.
Abdulrahman Mohammed, the captain of the historic Falcons side that made the trip to the Mediterranean where they faced Germany, Colombia and Yugoslavia, is disappointed by his country's lack of progress in the international arena. "After the World Cup we failed to maximise our potential and build on it," he said. "The federation went through so many changes and you cannot build a team when you change the manager all the time. Look at China and Korea and Japan; they have qualified many times now.
"But we have failed to ever reach the finals again." The UAE tasted success in 2007 when, competing on home soil, the Falcons won the Gulf Cup. Mohammed, however, says it is not enough. "You cannot compare the World Cup with the Gulf Cup. Look at Bahrain and Oman: Bahrain have now competed twice in a World Cup play-off to qualify for the World Cup and yet they cannot; Oman won the Gulf Cup this year, but did not qualify for South Africa," said the former midfielder.
"It is completely different. I think it is much better to simply qualify for the World Cup than it is to win the Gulf Cup." While several UAE companies have exported their dirhams abroad - most notably the Abu Dhabi United Group who have ploughed millions into Manchester City - the national team's players are not such a sought-after commodity overseas and their lack of experience abroad is, according to some, detrimental to the national team.
Not one single first-team member plies his trade outside the seven emirates. And while that could be a reflection of the players' ability, there are indications that some UAE clubs are actively blocking their best players from leaving. Ismail Matar, widely regarded as the Falcons most precocious talent, has long stated his desire to depart his home country and yet still turns out for Al Wahda each week. Likewise, Faisal Khalil - whose Al Ahli compete tonight in the opening match of the Club World Cup - came close to signing for French club Chateauroux, but was recalled from a trial before the Ligue 2 side agreed terms.
"The local clubs must open the doors and let their players leave," said Mohammed, who cites the likes of Bolton's Omani goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi and FC Twente's Iraqi playmaker Nashat Akram as two example of players who have gone abroad and improved. "It is the only way they will get better - even if it is just Gulf wide," he said. "It would provide great experience and help the UAE improve for World Cups of the future."
Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi, president of the FA, agrees, insisting that experience abroad can only benefit the local game - although he is unlikely to force clubs' hands. "I hope this way of thinking changes in time and I'm sure within a few years we will see players from this country playing outside [the UAE]," he said. "We need to reshape our thinking about football if we want to go higher up in Asia and the world."
With al Rumaithi in charge, the future of UAE football looks stable. The new national coach, Srecko Katanec, is expected to be given time, while the Emirates Under-17, U19 and U20 sides have all impressed in recent outings, most notably the U19 side who won the Asian Championship last year in Saudi Arabia. "We can see from the U19s and the U20 team in Egypt [at the U20 World Cup earlier this year] that they have good quality, but they need more experience," said Mohammed.
"This team, if it can get experienced, can play at the Olympics in 2012 and do well. "But they need to play against African teams, American teams, European teams regularly. "We have good players, if we can keep them and keep a good coach, the UAE will qualify for the World Cup in 2014. Of that I have no doubt. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org