x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Gulf Cup: Big brother Mahdi Ali is watching over the UAE

UAE's national football team coach has shielded his young players from media and public attention now that expectations are high of them impressing at the upcoming Gulf Cup.

Mahdi Ali is in Bahrain with the UAE national team.
Mahdi Ali is in Bahrain with the UAE national team.

Back in October, 2008, when Mahdi Ali took his team for their first major challenge - the Asian Under 19 Championships in Saudi Arabia - there was barely a whisper in the media.

With the senior national team struggling in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, all the attention, or lamenting, was focused on them. The juniors were left on their own. There was no hype or brash pre-tournament predictions.

And Mahdi Ali was grateful for that.

"Thank God, that did not happen," he said after returning home with the winner's trophy. "We have tried to avoid media attention and it allowed the team to stay fully focused on the task at hand."

The low-key approach worked splendidly for Mahdi Ali's young Emiratis. In one of the best performances by any UAE football team on the international stage, his team beat the nine-time champions South Korea, the five-time winners Iraq and Syria, also a previous winner of the title, in the group stages.

In the quarter-finals, they knocked out the hosts and two-time champions Saudi Arabia and then swamped Australia 3-0 in the semi-finals. In the final they beat Uzbekistan 2-1.

After playing six matches in 15 days and remaining unbeaten, the team returned home to a hero's welcome, with the country's first Asian Football Confederation title, and they have since earned the tag of the UAE's "Golden Generation", with many having graduated to the senior national side, which Mahdi Ali is now in charge of.

There is no shortage of hype now, but Mahdi Ali still manages to shield the team from the media. It has become a pre-tournament ritual for him.

Before the 2009 Youth World Cup in Egypt, he took the team to Turkey for a training camp, away from family and friends, and any possible distractions. It was the same before the 2010 Under 23 Gulf Cup in Qatar and the Asian Games in Guangzhou in China.

Last year, the team prepared in Austria for the London Olympic Games and neither the coach nor the players spoke to the media until they reached Manchester. And there has not been a word from them from Doha where the squad have been training for the Gulf Cup since December 21.

The strategy has been working and the players seem at ease with the arrangement. Like Mahdi Ali said, it allows them to channel their energies and emotions.

The likes of Amer Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil, Habib Al Fardan and others in the squad certainly seem a lot more comfortable with a ball at their feet rather than a microphone or camera in their face. They prefer to express themselves through their football.

And together, the group shares a great bond.

"Mahdi Ali … off the field, he is your father, brother," Mohammed Ahmed, the Al Ain defender, said last year. "He will sit with us and we play cards, we joke. But on the field, he is very serious and I am scared of him on the field."

That fear comes from respect and for everything that Mahdi Ali has done to guide and nurture them.

"The relationship between the players and the coach is very important and the players love Mahdi, just like we loved [Bruno] Metsu," said Mohammed Omar, the captain of the UAE team which won the Gulf Cup at home in 2007 with Metsu as coach. "He's excellent. He took the team to the Under 20 World Cup and now the Olympics."

Can Mahdi Ali lead the UAE to their second Gulf Cup title? Omar believes so and, like him, every football fan in the country has the same confidence in the coach.

However,Mahdi Ali, as he usually does, has tried to play down the UAE's chances and curb the hype.

"Frankly, winning the Gulf Cup was not one of our priorities," he said before leaving for Doha, claiming his main goals were qualifying for the 2015 Asian Cup and the 2018 World Cup.

"But we realise the importance of the Gulf Cup and we will be doing our best to compete for the title.

"It's not necessarily a priority or preference to win the title, but it is important to play in an honourable manner.

"These are all young players and they still have a long way to go. We still need a lot of work and there should be no rush for results. We want to reach our targets with small, but sure steps."

According to the coach, the Gulf Cup is just a "station" in their journey to higher destinations and he warned against excessive celebrations should they prevail.

"We need to be objective," he said. "Not go overboard in our praise [if they win the Gulf Cup] nor castigate them [if they fail to do so]."

The dangers of that are evident from the history of the 2007 Gulf Cup-winning squad and their subsequent failures at the 2008 Asian Cup and in 2010 World Cup qualifying.

And big brother Mahdi Ali wants to protect his wards from such a fate.

arizvi@thenational.ae

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