x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Loss could be golden chance

Let the Olympic players leave the World Cup squad now, says Amith Passela, and give them time to focus on the London Games.

Ismail Matar, centre, in action during Friday night’s 2-0 loss to South Korea, says the future is with the side that made the Olympics.
Ismail Matar, centre, in action during Friday night’s 2-0 loss to South Korea, says the future is with the side that made the Olympics.

With the UAE's hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup already gone, the long process of preparing for Russia 2018 begins now. And there would be no more appropriate action than for the game's authorities to throw everything into the Olympic team's bid to play in the 2012 London Games.

The most successful age-group team ever produced by the country, dubbed "the golden generation" by Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithi, the FA president, have already won the Under 19 Asian Cup, in 2008. They also reached the U20 World Cup quarter-finals in 2009 and the final of the Asian Games, an Under 23 competition, in 2010.

Several players from Mahdi Ali's Under 23 team, who form the Olympic side, are already part of the senior national team. But Abdullah Misfir, the coach, would do well to ignore them for the remaining two games of World Cup qualifying, allowing them to focus mentally and physically on the London Games.

It appears this thought may have already been in his mind on Friday. Hamdan Al Kamali, the U23 captain, Ahmed Khalil and Amer Abdulrahman, all key players in the Olympic team, were left out of the starting line-up against South Korea.

Ali has previously suggested that the UAE's younger players are overworked by appearing for both teams. In July he said: "Currently there are 11 players in the Olympic team who are with the UAE first team. That makes it more difficult for us. We need to co-ordinate carefully for both."

Qualifying for the Olympics, for the first time, would be a major boost for UAE football and could give the senior team the impetus to approach the 2018 World Cup with a positive outlook.

Players on the Olympic team should be hitting their peaks four years from now, when qualifying begins for the Russia 2018. Ismail Matar, the UAE's celebrated forward, is 28, and he has said he will not be available for the 2018 campaign. Subait Khater and Basheer Saeed, other key veterans, would be 38 and 37, respectively, come 2018.

"The future of the UAE team is with the age-group side that has done wonderfully well and my wish is they qualify for the London Games and then carry on the mantle of the nation's ambition at the next World Cup," Matar said.

The UAE's chances of reaching the final stage of 2014 World Cup qualifying were severely damaged when they lost their first two games, home to Kuwait 3-2 and away to Lebanon 3-1.

A managerial change was made and Misfir replaced Srecko Katanec.

It was always going to be a hard task for Misfir, with back-to-back games against the Asian heavyweight South Korea. They lost both matches, even though performances picked up from the two previous games.

The first of the remaining matches is against Kuwait on Tuesday. The final game is in February, home against Lebanon, who have surprised by taking their points tally to seven and grabbing second place in the group. The South Koreans had drubbed them 6-0 in the opener.

Misfir said he wants to play for pride, but allowing the Olympic squad to rest would be more beneficial in the long term.

The Olympic team drew their opening game with Australia, 0-0 away in September, and they meet the Group B leaders Uzbekistan on November 23 in Al Ain, followed by another home clash with Iraq four days later.

They have played well so far, having disposed of Sri Lanka 10-1 on aggregate in the first round and edged out North Korea 2-1 on aggregate to reach the group stage.

The top team from the three four-team groups will win direct passage to the London Games.

The second-place team in each group will enter a play-off at a centralised venue from March 25-29, with the winner going on to meet an African representative in a final play-off for a London berth.

For a football-mad country like the UAE, one World Cup appearance, in 1990, is not enough. The "golden generation" have a lot of expectations on their shoulders, so the games chiefs must do all they can to facilitate their success.

apassela@thenational.ae