x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Mahdi Ali's mantra is embedded in the UAE team's collective conscious

The reticent Mahdi Ali is unequivocal when he tells Ali Khaled that his success philosophy is: we are in it together.

The Emirati manager Mahdi Ali has been successful with the age-group players, in the UAE national team where seniors like Ismail Matar have played a supporting role if needed. Fadi Al-Assaad / Reuters
The Emirati manager Mahdi Ali has been successful with the age-group players, in the UAE national team where seniors like Ismail Matar have played a supporting role if needed. Fadi Al-Assaad / Reuters

Listen to Mahdi Ali speak for a few minutes and it is more than likely the word "group" will pop up once or twice. As will "we", even when "I" is perfectly justified.

The UAE national team coach has a specific football philosophy, and at the heart of it is the collective ethic. The man who led the UAE to victory at the Gulf Cup in January is a fiercely proud Emirati.

Always eloquent. Imminently accessible and approachable when the mood takes him.

But often reticent, too.

As elusive as Jose Mourinho; as detached as Rafael Benitez. Especially in the buildup to big matches, when his game hat is firmly on.

On Monday, Mahdi Ali was happy to talk football, and never more than when the topic is about his Gulf Cup heroes.

"I think the players have proved that they are a strong group, they are the future of Emirati football and hopefully we can go on to achieve things that we have not managed in the past," the 48 year old said.

"We have to take advantage of this crop of players, we have an excellent generation and we hope to achieve all our ambitions, which are qualifying to the 2015 Asian Cup [in Australia], and then to be one of the best four teams in Asia, and at the same time look forward to qualification to the 2018 World Cup."

The glory in Bahrain was built on a strong foundation of teamwork. It was noticeable in post-match interviews how often the players quoted their coach's words: "There are no reserves, everyone is first choice."

The mantra, while no doubt designed to inspire belonging in every member of the squad, has far more pragmatic connotations as well. However good an individual is, he is only a bad tackle away from being a major loss to his team.

"It is essential that the selection does not rely on one player only, of course whenever the team is at full strength it is a bonus and we can perform at a higher level, but we always rely on the group more than we rely on the individual," the former Al Ahli player and coach said.

"We have consistently focused on the 24 players, not on one or two, because any player can get injured at any time. We cannot tie the national team's fate to one player only."

The principals of group unity that Ali Mahdi preaches are handy when addressing the merits, some would say indispensability, of some of the outstanding individuals currently representing the UAE. And never more so than in the case of the nation's golden boy, Omar Abdulrahman of Al Ain.

"Of course, if Omar or Ahmed Khalil [the Ahli forward] or [Al Jazira striker] Ali Mabkhout stand out, that is in my opinion due to the effort of the whole set up, from the coaches, the management, medical staff and of course the players," he says, keen to highlight the contributions of everyone that played a part in the Gulf Cup triumph.

"This is the kind of environment that will help even the best players to excel further."

Tactically, his football philosophy is one based on possession football and short, incisive passing. Mahdi Ali's admiration for Barcelona is no secret; the team with three of the world's finest individuals has managed to perfectly harness their talents into an obsessively team-based approach.

It is the blueprint for Mahdi Ali's brave new world.

"I think that the team plays a brand of collective football that has allowed Omar and a few others like Ahmed Khalil, Ali Mabkhout, Khamis Ismail [Jazira midfielder], and [Baniyas playmaker] Amer Abdulrahman to perform to such a high standard," he says proudly. "That is due to the group ethic."

It is a shared ideology that has not always existed among the national team squad. But now, under a fatherly Emirati, unity and self-sacrifice for the cause are consistently being drilled into the players.

Perhaps no one typifies this ethos more than Ismail Matar, the Al Wahda forward. The squad captain, for long the UAE's star player by some distance, had to contend with a place on the bench during the Gulf Cup, and unlike other Emirati players in the past, accepted his new role unquestioningly. Indeed, his introduction to matches often proved a trump card.

"That is because we are one family, our primary concern is to win, regardless of what the names of the first 11 are they will represent the whole group, and when we win it is thanks to the whole squad, not one player," the coach says of the players' acceptance of his methods.

"If one player stands out in a match and the team don't get a positive result, years later no one will remember that that particular player in that particular match was a star, but everyone will remember what that team achieved."

On their return from Bahrain, the players were showered with acclaim, and a few gifts, as well. It was essential, for Mahdi, that their feet remained firmly on the ground. And to their credit, the players have responded.

"This is the logic, the ideals, that we have tried to instil into the group," he says. "We are one unified team, through the good times and bad, and we're all in it together."

Mahdi's first international assignment was as coach of the UAE Under 16s in 2003.

Since then, he has had almost uninterrupted access to a group of players that he has seen blossom from gangly juniors into the finest UAE team in two generations. "We are one family, we have spent long periods in each other's company, perhaps even more than we have spent with our own families," he says with a smile.

“This has fostered a real bond within the group and that is an important part of the success of the national team.”

Inevitably, talk turns to Emirati players being prised away by foreign teams. Omar Abdulrahman, once again, is at the top of the list, and a big move for him, or any of his international teammates, will get Mahdi Ali's blessing.

"Any player that gets the opportunity to be a professional abroad and play in a strong, highly competitive league, will improve his experience and naturally raise his technical skills," Mahdi Ali says.

"When that happens, his improvement will be reflected in the improvement of the selection. We hope that our players will get the chance to play abroad and that we start hearing of official approaches and not just rumours, because they have shown at the Olympic Games that they are capable of taking on any team."

Those performances at the Olympics clearly remain the benchmark for the coach.

Despite a 3-1 loss, the performance of Abdulrahman and his teammates against Great Britain was a clear indication of how well Mahdi Ali's boys can hold their own among some of the Premier League's finest.

“We were delighted with that performance, and hopefully in the future we can even improve on that showing.” It is that desire for constant progress that drives Mahdi Ali on. Philosophy is all well and good, but it is worthless without application and long-term planning.

The UAE's next competitive match is the 2015 Asian Cup qualifier in Hong Kong on October 15. Before that, several friendlies, most likely in Saudi Arabia, could be confirmed for September. In the meantime, the hard work for the coach and his team of assistants continues.

Over the summer, they will be monitoring the progress of the injured players as well as keeping an eye on the next generation of young players who could make the step up to the senior side.

In the end, all of it, the philosophy, the hard work, the lows and the highs are all worth it for one reason above all others. Emiratis, after years of apathy, are once again in love with their football team.

"I think one of the biggest gains since we took over has been restoring the supporters' faith in the team, that is so vital because the presence of the fans at the matches is a fundamental factor in the success of the team," he said, keen to note that 25,000 fans made the trip to Bahrain in January to cheer his men on to glory.

Mahdi Ali believes the crowds are returning because of their trust in the team.

"We are delighted, because everything we do on the field is for the country and the fans, whether in the stands or watching us on their screens," he says.

"We are very, very pleased with this renewed enthusiasm for the team, and we can once again say that we have a genuine bond between the team and the supporters. It's our biggest win."

akhaled@thenational.ae

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