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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Rayan Yaslam interview: Al Ain midfielder continues to repay the faith and targets UAE place for 2019 Asian Cup

Emirati midfielder has shone for his club and reveals his determination to help the national team at next year's continental tournament on home soil

Rayan Yaslam has become an important player for Al Ain and intends to stake a claim for a place in the UAE team. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Rayan Yaslam has become an important player for Al Ain and intends to stake a claim for a place in the UAE team. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Rayan Yaslam concedes that life has changed, more than a little.

Having graduated to the Al Ain first team in the 2012/13 season, then aged 18 and after impressing manager Cosmin Olaroiu, the Emirati midfielder has waited some time to establish himself as a regular contributor.

However, he has blossomed during Zoran Mamic’s tenure. Now a first-team fixture, Yaslam was integral to last season’s historic double - Al Ain won the Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup - playing 20 times in the top flight and scoring four goals. It represented Yaslam’s third league crown, although felt like the first in which he was truly instrumental.

His club form led to a call-up for his country in December. Yaslam debuted at the Gulf Cup of Nations as the UAE reached the final in Kuwait, and has been a near-constant in Alberto Zaccheroni’s squad since.

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Currently with the national team after their latest training camp kicked off in Dubai on Monday, Yaslam is intent upon staking a claim for a place in the starting XI in time for January’s Asian Cup on home soil.

So, yeah, life has changed.

“A lot, really.” Yaslam laughs. “Outside, inside. Outside, there’s more people than normal in Al Ain who know me. Always they give me energy, positive words. And even on the field they have more confidence, more trust in me, because this is my second season to play fully. They trust in me more than at any time so far.”

That faith has stemmed, primarily, from Mamic. Since the Croat took charge in February last year, Yaslam has been involved in 15 of 17 league matches and all of this year’s Asian Champions League campaign.

On Sunday, he scored in the 2-0 victory against Baniyas, helping Al Ain remain two points off leaders Sharjah after nine rounds. Progress has been swift, although Yaslam is keen for more.

“I feel I’m becoming better, thankfully,” he says. “Normally any player, when he plays, every game he takes more improvement. Zoran Mamic always gives me the opportunity to play and he supports me a lot.

“And even the national team, coach Zaccheroni gave me the chance and the management believe in me. Sure, I will give everything that I have to be part of the Al Ain first XI and part of the national team, everything to help them.”

Assisting the national team at the Asian Cup in two months’ time is what occupies the mind at present. Yaslam has only a handful of appearances to date - four caps - but his elevated role at Al Ain and the injury to former club teammate Omar Abdulrahman seems to have made certain his involvement in January. Then, the UAE host the continent’s showpiece for only the second time in their history.

“Since December, I was with the national team and it’s a big honour - really it is,” Yaslam says in almost flawless English, the result of time spent in the United States and Australia. “And I hope to be always with them and give all that I have to support my teammates and do well in the competition.

“I just have to keep going with the national team. Even if I don’t play, if I was not in the national team, I will be the first one who would support, for sure.”

Support for the UAE has been difficult to gauge recently. The UAE have struggled for much of Zaccheroni’s year-long reign, and have a solitary victory in their past eight matches. With each result, and with the Asian Cup fast approaching, the pressure weighs that bit more, as the country wishes for a strong performance as hosts.

There is precedent, though. In 1996, the national team reached the final of an albeit much different format. Then, 12 teams contested the trophy in the Emirates; this time, the tournament has been expanded to 24, with the UAE drawn in Group A alongside Bahrain, India and Thailand.

They open the event against Bahrain at Zayed Sports City Stadium on January 5. No matter the problems with injuries or results, the country expects.

“All the players in the national team are big players, they are not without experience," Yaslam says. "They are maybe 12 or 15 players, so they know how to handle the pressure.

“And the rest, the younger players, it’s our turn to give the energy. The experience is there, the quality, everything."

For most, success would be improving upon the third-place finish in Australia close to four years ago, when the UAE defeated Japan en route to their best result on foreign soil. The dream is bettering the 1996 side, who were denied Asian football’s most-coveted title only by defeat, on penalties, to Saudi Arabia.

“The tournament is in our country so success would be to take it,” Yaslam says. “Twenty-two years ago we arrived to the final, therefore we need to be at least in the final.

“It's a proud moment for the country, an honour to host it. And all our fans, all our citizens in the UAE, they want the trophy, for sure. They will not want less than first position. I think, if we believe, our national team can do it.”