x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Matar's big chance with the next generation

Unable to make the big-money move in Europe, the Emirati is back up to speed, writes Paul Oberjuerge from Lienz, Austria.

Ismail Matar, left, is 29 years old now but retains an ability to impress as he netted twice against a Hungarian youth side.
Ismail Matar, left, is 29 years old now but retains an ability to impress as he netted twice against a Hungarian youth side.

The Fifa Youth World Championship came to the UAE in 2003, and among the rising footballers who participated were Carlos Tevez, Andres Iniesta, Clint Dempsey, Javier Mascherano, Pablo Zabalata and James Milner.

Yet the winner of the Golden Ball as "best player" in the tournament was the "brilliant" and "mesmerising" Ismail Matar.

It was the Fifa website which heaped praise on the diminutive Emirati forward, then just 20 years old and the player most responsible for the UAE reaching the quarter-finals of the tournament.

The citation ended with: "The future seems paved with gold for the man from the Al Wahda club ... as he is being strongly tipped for a big-money move to Europe on the back of his brilliant performances."

Certainly, Matar's career has been a success. He scored five goals in the run to the 2007 Gulf Cup of Nations championship, the only trophy won by the senior national side, and has been part of three league championships at Wahda.

For a decade, he has been the country's most prominent player, and Adnan Al Talyani, the prolific scorer of two decades back, may be his only equal in UAE football annals.

But the big-money move to Europe never came, leaving the London Olympics as perhaps the last and best chance for Matar, now 29, to leave an impression on one of football's great stages.

He was always an easy choice as one of the three "overage" players selected by the coach, Mahdi Ali, to join the Under 23 Olympic side, and he quickly has become a major influence, both on the pitch and off it.

He has three goals in the UAE's six friendlies here in the Alps, perhaps because he is cutting a particularly svelte figure.

He has trimmed five kilograms of weight, and his speed, quickness and durability all seem markedly improved from recent years.

He may not be 23, but he now often plays as if he is.

He also is a sort of father figure to the age-group players, even though he is barely six years older than most of them.

"I'm extremely excited to play beside Matar," the Al Jazira forward Ali Mabhkout told the FA website. "He's so big in our eyes, as a new generation."

If Mabhkout's generation, often described as "golden", lacks for anything, it is a reliable scorer to complement Ahmed Khalil, and Matar may be the man to fill that gap.

Khalil is a more classic striker - taller, athletic, good in the air. Matar's passing skills should provide the Al Ahli man with better chances.

But he retains his ability to score, as he did into an upper corner of the goal from a 20-yard free kick in the friendly against a Hungarian youth side last week.

Minutes later, he wriggled through a crowd before tapping in a second.

It was like seeing again the Ismail Matar of 2003 or 2007, the man who has more international goals, 25, for his country than anyone except Al Talyani.

London 2012 comes at a good time for him. He battled a knee injury last summer and missed several games during the brief and disappointing 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.

He also has scored less often for Wahda of late: three league goals, this past season. He put home as many as 14, a decade ago.

And now he gets a chance, before very large audiences, to show what he is about.

He appreciates that his younger teammates have won a berth in a tournament of this magnitude, which for the Emiratis will include games at Old Trafford, against Uruguay, and at Wembley Stadium, against Great Britain.

"It's a dream come true, both for me and for my country," Matar told the FA.

"I'm truly obliged to our coach Mahdi Ali to avail me the opportunity of playing for the Olympic team, and the boys who brought a lot of pride to their nation ... I hope to live up to the expectations and join hands with the youngsters to make our presence felt during the Games."

Mahdi Ali and Josef Hickersberger, Matar's most recent coach at Wahda, have almost identical descriptions of the player's capabilities. "When he is healthy, he is one of the best players in the country."

If the UAE are to have the Olympics they hope for, Matar needs to replicate the irresistible form that landed him the Golden Ball at the 2003 World Youth Championship.

 

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

 

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