x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Olympics: Little men at height of power

The UAE Olympic football side can take inspiration from Barcelona as they prepare for the London Olympics, writes Paul Oberjuerge.

The UAE Olympic football team did not let their small stature stop them from defeating a young Hungarian side 5-0 on Wednesday.
The UAE Olympic football team did not let their small stature stop them from defeating a young Hungarian side 5-0 on Wednesday.

Thanks mostly to Barcelona and the Spain national team, we can safely declare this the Age of the Little Footballer.

The game has been moving in that direction for perhaps two decades, but in the past five years most of the major trophies have been won by teams known for their agile, compact and technically skilled players.

This must be an inspiration to the UAE Olympic team.

Perhaps one or two of the 16 teams in the London 2012 football tournament will boast key players as diminutive as those of the UAE, but it will not be many.

The Emirati side revolves around of two compact midfielders, Omar Abdulrahman and Amer Abdulrahman, who stand 1.73 metres and 1.68m, respectively. And if you would like to compare them to Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, of Barca and Spain, each of whom are listed, perhaps generously, at 1.70m, well, feel free.

It may be more apt than the football world yet knows.

The UAE will look for inspiration and goals from Ismail Matar, the senior team veteran and the most-decorated Emirati footballer from the past decade.

Matar stands 1.68m; Lionel Messi is 1.69m.

The latter has the great trophies, and his height did not hold him back, even as a forward.

Other important UAE players are not tall. Ismail Al Hammadi, the tireless attacking midfielder, is 1.57m, and Ahmed Ali, the busy forward with the heavy shot, is 1.68m.

In American football, coaches refer to big players as having "passed the eyeball test". That is, if a kid looks big enough, even without seeing him play, well, now you have something to work with.

In the Era of the Little Footballer, the eyeball test has been turned upside down.

We now can imagine football coaches looking askance at towering midfielders and beefy strikers and wondering: "How will they hold the ball in a crowd? Can they do tricks with it? Can they still sprint in the 90th minute?" They might accept them as central defenders or goalkeepers, but certainly they would not assume that are players who could keep the ball under pressure and distribute it.

In their friendly match here Thursday, against an admittedly young and undermanned Hungary side, the UAE's most impressive players were their shortest, as they often are.

The Abdulrahmans, who are friends but not relatives, tormented the bigger Hungarians with their technical skills. It was rather like watching one of the Harlem Globetrotters dribble a ball between his legs and around his back while hapless opponents give fruitless chase.

"Now you see it; now you don't. You think I am going there? I am going here. And yes, you are right: I can take two steps in the time it takes for you to take one."

Those two and Ali, the forward who often dropped back to help move the ball forward, had the ball at their feet for long stretches of time. Omar Abdulrahman's speciality is the side-foot pass; Amer's is dribbling in a complete circle as defenders fly past.

When players can run and dribble as well and as quickly as do so many of the smaller men on the UAE side, opponents must give them space or risk being left behind, or coming up empty on a tackle. Both results are embarrassing; more important, both can lead to conceded goals.

Matar scored two goals in the 5-0 drubbing, one after dribbling through a thicket of defenders, a crowd it would be hard to imagine, say, Alan Shearer or Rudi Voller, slipping through. Or, more recently, Cristiano Ronaldo or Mario Gomez. Each of the Abdulrahmans set up a goal, as did Al Hammadi, and Haboush Saleh, all 1.67m of him, also scored.

We won't be hurting anyone's feelings by acknowledging, ahead of the 2012 Olympics, that three teams in Group A will go to the football tournament counting on three points from their match with the UAE.

Part of that certainty will come from a perception, certainly held by supporters of Team GB, but perhaps those of Uruguay and Senegal as well, that the Emirati side is too small to give battle.

That sort of thinking is outdated, but it persists in some quarters. Stuart Pearce, the Team GB coach, certainly will be aware of the dangers posed by speedy and skilled opponents.

Barcelona, and Spain, have shown the way. The UAE Olympic team aspire to follow the path they have trod.


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