x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Comeback trail paved with drama for UAE

Ahmed Khalil scores twice and Haboush Saleh hits the game-winner that sends the UAE to the London 2012 Olympics, the team's first appearance in the Olympic football tournament.

UAE players and staff celebrate after beating host Uzbekistan 3-2 to qualify for the London 2012 Olympic.
UAE players and staff celebrate after beating host Uzbekistan 3-2 to qualify for the London 2012 Olympic.

Where to begin? One of the greatest comebacks in UAE football history, no question.

Certainly, the most remarkable up-from-the-depths performance in a game that really, really mattered.

Ahmed Khalil scoring perhaps the two most exquisite goals under duress in national annals. And an abrupt turnaround from a crushing 2-0 defeat to an exhilarating 3-2 victory on an opponents' cold and soggy turf.

A surfeit of sweets to savour.

Where it ends? That is a much simpler proposition.

At the London 2012 Olympics.

Khalil blasted home two goals in a five-minute span of the second half to get the vital equalising scores, and Haboush Saleh punctuated it with a strike in the third minute of added time as the Under 23 team defeated Uzbekistan 3-2 before a capacity crowd of 10,000 in the JAR Stadium in Tashkent.

The victory means that the Emiratis won Group B of Asian qualifying for the London Games, and assured their first appearance in the Olympic football tournament. Even a draw would have put them through, but the victory somehow made it even more memorable.

"I always had a confidence in the team," said Mahdi Ali, the coach who has led this group of age-group players since 2008. "We have had the same thing happen to us in the past, and these guys showed they will never give up."

Hamdan Al Kamali, the Lyon centre-back who was the UAE's captain last night, tried to describe his emotions.

"How I feel? Ha-ha!" he said. "All the people are happy now! I am very happy! My dreams are great now! I am very happy because we go to London!"

Yousuf Al Serkal, the chairman of the Football Association's interim committee, remembers the UAE's World Cup team of 1990, perhaps the only footballing achievement which surpasses this one.

"This was very dramatic," he said. "Our path was very dramatic, from not having a chance to qualify to leading the group and playing an away game with an opponent that has a better chance in its homeland, and losing 2-0 in the first minute of the second half.

"Just look at it. It's not only the dramatic way we qualified, it's a dramatic game itself, equalising and then winning.

"I'm sure the Emiratis are all happy, not only for winning, but for qualifying for England. This is a very big thing."

The UAE were the quicker and more technically polished team all along, but 10 hours of rain the previous night left the pitch soggy and soft, and the Emiratis had trouble translating their superior skill into quality opportunities.

The Uzbeks scored in the 33rd minute, and the stadium rocked with celebration, when Oleg Zejeev took advantage of an empty net to knock in a soft shot at the end of an inelegant build-up.

They made it 2-0 moments after the second half began as Fozil Musaev got his head on an in-swinging pass and bumped it past Khalid Essa, the UAE goalkeeper.

Down two goals in the second half on a foreign field looked like a no-win situation for the UAE.

However, Ali had reminded the team at half-time of their history of comebacks.

History, then, was on their side, but so, too, was Khalil, the Al Ahli striker, who has a history of punishing the Uzbeks.

He halved the deficit in the 50th minute with an exquisitely placed free kick from about 20 yards.

Four minutes later, the Emiratis were on the attack again, and Omar Abdulrahman, whose ball control was sublime, flicked on a crossing pass to the feet of Khalil, just outside the box, and the striker's first touch whistled into the right side of the goal.

The 9,800 Uzbek supporters among the crowd of 10,000 fell silent, and their team seemed to fall to pieces.

Their attacks turned increasingly chaotic, and it seemed almost inevitable when Ali Mabkhout rolled a pass over to Saleh on a two-on-one break, and the little Baniyas midfielder scored the third goal.

"I am really proud for this achievement," said Ali. "It's the wish of every Emirati to reach London.

"This game was for history."