x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

"Each of those players is a star": Diego Maradona gives his support to UAE's Gulf Cup finalists

The former Al Wasl manager, now Dubai's sporting ambassador, backed Mahdi Ali's side to lift the Gulf Cup on Friday after watching their dramatic late victory over Kuwait.

Former Al Wasl coach Diego Maradona.
Former Al Wasl coach Diego Maradona.

Diego Maradona, the Argentine legend, considers himself an "Emirati" now and he will be rooting for the UAE when they meet Iraq in tomorrow's final of the Gulf Cup in Bahrain.

Ahmed Khalil struck an 89th-minute winner as the UAE knocked out the defending champions Kuwait 1-0 in the first semi-final on Tuesday, while Noor Sabri made two saves as Iraq prevailed 4-2 over hosts Bahrain in the penalty shoot-out after being tied 1-1 at the end of 120 minutes.

Maradona, who has been living in Dubai since joining Al Wasl as coach in July 2011, has been impressed with Mahdi Ali's side and he is hoping to see them lift the trophy in Bahrain.

"I'll be the happiest person if I see the UAE lift the trophy," Maradona told the Arabic daily Emarat Al Youm. "I consider myself a part of the people of United Arab Emirates. They have been great hosts and I feel an emotional link with them."

Maradona, who became an honorary sports ambassador for the Dubai Sports Council after being dismissed as Wasl coach in July, has watched all the matches that UAE have played in Bahrain and the Argentine World Cup winner believes the UAE have been the best team on view in Bahrain.

"I have been really impressed and surprised by the performance of the UAE in terms of discipline and tactical play," he said. "The technical level of this championship has been good in general, but the UAE have really caught my attention.

"The system they are playing is perfect, whether in defence or attack, and I expect them to win the title. They have already shown they have the tools and ability to achieve this goal.

"The team has many players with high technical skills, but the coach has been able to bind their potential together as a team. They have not been dependent on individuals, but have given collective team performances and overcome all the other teams through tactical discipline.

"Each one of those 23 players is a star. Every individual has executed his part to perfection and that, in my opinion, is the real secret of the UAE's strength in this tournament."

This is Maradona's first experience of the Gulf Cup and he has been surprised by the passion this regional tournament can generate.

"Wherever I go in Dubai, I can see happiness on the faces of everyone. They are proud of their team's performance and I wish with all my heart that this continues till the end of the tournament because the Emiratis are good people and love their football."

Thousands of UAE fans had travelled to Manama for Tuesday's semi-final against the 10-time champions Kuwait and both Mahdi Ali and Yousuf Al Serkal, the president of the UAE Football Federation, described them as the "real stars" of the 1-0 win.

"The true heroes of this game are the UAE fans, who kept encouraging the team in this cold weather," Al Serkal said. "Winning is the least this team could do for these fans, who have sacrificed so much to come and support the team."

After the game, the UAE team did a lap of thanks for the fans, who had a long night of celebrations. The players, however, have kept their celebrations on hold till after the end of the final.

"We have no time to celebrate because we need to focus on the final," said Omar Abdulrahman, who is a front-runner for the Player of the Tournament award. "There is no pressure on the players - success comes from God. For us, the important thing is to give a good performance.

"Thank God, we have not disappointed our fans till now. They have come to the stadiums in huge numbers to support us and I hope it will be the same for the final."

 

sports@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE