x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Ismail Matar backs UAE to build on emotional Gulf Cup success and reach 2018 World Cup

The Emirati forward, and only player for the UAE team to have lifted the Gulf Cup twice, talks to Omar Al Raisi about the national team’s momentous victory in Bahrain.

Ismail Matar, who is now the only UAE player to lift two Gulf Cups, celebrates with his teammates after their victory against Kuwait in this year's semi-final. Mohammed Dabbous / Reuters
Ismail Matar, who is now the only UAE player to lift two Gulf Cups, celebrates with his teammates after their victory against Kuwait in this year's semi-final. Mohammed Dabbous / Reuters

It was an image both searing and poignant, a weeping Ismail Matar, his chest heaving as he sobbed, riding on the shoulders of a teammate as the national team celebrated a semi-final victory at the Gulf Cup two weeks ago.

The UAE had another match to play, but the hero of the 2007 Gulf Cup championship was certain that Ahmed Khalil's 89th-minute winner over Kuwait had been the crucial moment in the tournament.

"Yes, exactly," he said. "I was emotional because it reminded me of 2007 when we won against Saudi Arabia [in the semi-finals] and the goal came at the right time, and I knew at that moment, in my heart, that 'This is it, this is our time'. So that's the real reason why I got emotional."

Three days later, Matar's intuition was proved correct, and the 29-year-old captain became the first Emirati to lift the Gulf Cup twice.

He scored five of the UAE's eight goals in the 2007 triumph, but this time he was in the first XI only once in five matches, although he came on as a substitute in the final and contributed in the build-up to the winning goal against Iraq.

"I felt like it's a wake-up call being used only as a sub, but we have 23 players with the best quality and those 23 players are all the same," he said.

"We don't care who plays or not; it's all about the team and at the end this is the coach's decision so I have to respect it, but I'm here to stay. I don't see myself as old."

He will carry fond memories of the triumph in Bahrain, including the words of Mahdi Ali, the coach, at key moments in the tournament.

Matar said: "Before the game he said, 'I want you guys to play with the same confidence and enjoy the game just like any other and I'm sure we can defeat our opponent, inshallah'. And when Iraq equalised in the second half, he said, 'Guys don't be nervous, we will win this game; we need to keep the same performance and confidence because we can win this game'. And we did."

Then came another celebration, and Matar's tears gave way to smiles, as thousands of Emiratis in the stadium cheered his, and the country's, second Gulf Cup title.

"It means a lot to me and I feel like I made a history of my own, but then at the end of the day what makes me happy is that the team wins trophies, not me winning individual awards," he said. "I'm proud to make my country happy.

"We didn't hold back. There was a lot of emotions of happiness, and we knew that the whole nation is watching us on TV back home and we did not want to disappoint them."

The Emiratis next week play Vietnam in Hanoi, the first round of qualifying for the 2015 Asian Cup, a competition they have never won. Matar says his young compatriots have what it takes to play in that tournament as well as the 2018 World Cup, in Russia.

"I will be happy, of course, and I won't be surprised because we have a very good quality young team who is hungry for more success," he said. "If they keep going as they are now, with more experience and more talented players joining the team in the future, I won't be surprised."

Matar entered the country's consciousness at the 2003 World Youth Championship, played in the UAE, when he was named the best player in a competition that included Andres Iniesta, the Barcelona and Spain midfielder. Since then, he also has won two domestic league championships with Al Wahda, and it is fair to suggest he has surpassed Adnan Al Talyani, the key man in the UAE's 1990 World Cup team, as the most accomplished Emirati player.

He was rumoured to be heading to South America 10 years ago, but aside from a brief loan to the Qatar side Al Sadd in 2009, he has played all of his club football for Wahda.

"I think Al Wahda is always looking for better players to strengthen their team and from that past time it was not a good move for me," he said.

"I was so happy for making this decision and I wouldn't have known my situation if I left the club at that time, or if I would have been the same Ismail Matar you all know."

Wahda have not been a strong side since winning the league in 2010, but their captain remains optimistic.

"Always, when you make history in a club which believed in you, you don't run away from it if the results go wrong," he said. "I don't think you can change where you belong and the plan don't always stays the same.

"I have confidence in my coach and the team and it will stay the same, I hope we can start hard and keep a winning stream in the second half of the league."

He said he has plenty of football left in him, and concedes to only one regret.

"I am very happy with my career and I feel I am not done yet as there is much more left in me as a player in the top level," he said.

"But If I had a chance to rewind my football career back, I would've loved to have played in a top European league abroad."