Mahdi Ali’s next challenge will be to sustain the UAE football team’s 2013 run and prepare them for the Asian Cup.
For UAE football, 2014 is all about consolidation
Some things in life are hard, if not impossible, to better.
Just ask Mahdi Ali.
Exactly how will the UAE coach and his young team improve on a year that delivered an almost perfect playing record?
As dilemmas go, it is not a bad one to have; 2013 could turn out to be the year that defines the UAE’s latest golden generation, its finest since the one that qualified for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Then, it was Adnan Talyani, Fahed Khamis and Muhsin Musabah. Now, Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout and Ali Kasheif. And then of course there is Mahdi Ali.
These names have already gone down in Emirati football lore, but it is easy to forget that exactly 12 months ago the nation’s footballers entered the new year more in hope than expectation.
The London Olympics had revealed an Under 23 squad bursting with talent, one capable of holding its own against the world’s best. Yet it was still a squad full of potential rather than experience.
The big question: how would Mahdi Ali and his young team perform at senior level after their mass promotion?
The answer was unequivocal.
On January 5, the squad hit the ground running, kicking off their Gulf Cup campaign in Bahrain with 3-1 victory over Qatar. Abdulrahman, as he would prove so often throughout the year, was an inspiration with the opening goal.
From then on things just got better. The hosts were beaten 2-1, and that was followed by a 2-0 win over Oman, the enigmatic Ahmed Khalil translating his potential into goals again.
A late, celebrated Khalil goal in the semi-final against Kuwait set up a clash with Iraq, and the chance for the UAE to claim their second Gulf title.
In a dramatic final that the UAE’s travelling support had turned almost into a home game, Ismail Al Hammadi scored an extra-time winner to spark Emirati celebrations in Bahrain. In Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and the rest of the Emirates, fans took to the streets, and the players were showered with acclaim and gifts on their return home.
The year was less than three weeks old and the UAE’s footballers were Gulf champions.
A marker had been set.
Mahdi Ali, a meticulous, borderline obsessive coach, was already planning for the next task, qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.
Back-to-back 2-1 wins away to Vietnam and at home to Uzbekistan left the team top of their qualifying group by March.
The second of those matches, played at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, saw a crowd of more than 20,000 appreciative fans who thanked the players for their Gulf Cup heroics.
It would also be the last competitive action the players would see for six months, Mahdi Ali and the Football Association preferring to give the players a break rather than play friendlies across several international dates.
Not that it affected form.
In early September, the UAE took part in the inaugural OSN Cup in Saudi Arabia; a penalty shoot-out win after a 3-3 tie with Trinidad & Tobago was followed by an emphatic 2-0 victory in the final against New Zealand.
The friendly tournament was poorly attended, but those who did bother to watch the action would have seen a team at the top of their game, itching to take on teams from beyond the Middle East and Asia.
October and November saw qualification for Australia achieved comfortably with two 4-0 wins over Hong Kong and 5-0 over Vietnam, leaving a trip to Tashkent in March nothing more than a dead rubber.
In 2013, the UAE were unbeaten in 13 matches. And, counting the extra-time and penalty wins over Iraq and Trinidad & Tobago, respectively, won 13. The team established in 1971 also finished the year at 71 in Fifa’s world rankings, up 25 positions since the end of 2012.
Mahdi Ali had given the UAE a record-breaking year and a team to be proud of.
Above all, he had given the national team something it has struggled to attain for two decades. An identity, one reflected in a style of play based on possession, cohesion and short passes.
That 2013’s success was delivered by an Emirati after years of underachievement by foreign coaches has vindicated the FA’s new direction and perhaps written a blueprint for the future.
In many ways, 2014 will be a year of consolidation, if for no other reason than for a lack of competitive matches.
The game against Uzbekistan will be the only senior qualifier of any sort, and even the 22nd Gulf Cup (to be held in Saudi Arabia late in the year, or early 2015) is likely to see a shadow UAE squad as the seniors head to Australia 2015 in January.
Mahdi Ali has already declared his aim of taking the UAE to the last four of the Asian Cup. With a year to prepare and improve his team, few will bet against him.