x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Olympics: Mahdi Ali has the hopes of a nation on his shoulders

The UAE coach is acutely aware of how much the team's progress means to the fans back home, Paul Oberjuerge writes from Manchester.

Mahdi Ali, right, has prepared his side, left, for the biggest competition the country has played in since the 1990 World Cup.
Mahdi Ali, right, has prepared his side, left, for the biggest competition the country has played in since the 1990 World Cup.

If Mahdi Ali could disconnect himself and his team from the hopes and dreams of a nation, perhaps this would not be so difficult. If he could see tonight's London 2012 match with Uruguay as nothing more than his players pitted against an opponent's, a crushing burden might be lightened.

However, we know from the man himself that he is acutely sensitive to the elation - or despair - that can sweep his footballing nation, depending on the results of matches like the one tonight.

We know from his revelations after a 1-0 victory over Australia in a crucial Olympic qualifier at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in February, a game attended by more than 28,000 Emiratis, that the feelings of his compatriots are always on his mind.

"My main concern during the game," he conceded after that match, "was the fans, because this is the first time the fans came with this quantity to the field. And my main concern during the game? I want this crowd to go home happy at the end of the game.

"And I'm very happy at the end that we were successful in this game, and we fought and worked hard as we had promised the fans. And I'm very happy that they are happy."

Mahdi Ali wants to win, and he wants success for his players, but he also very much wants to win for his country, and if he feels the weight of a million Emiratis on his shoulders, from the President, an avid football fan, down to the youngest child … well, we begin to understand the pressure he must be standing up to.

In the past week, Football Association officials have described him as "very nervous" and also as "unhappy", as the countdown to the opening match in London 2012 dwindled to days, and then hours.

He has the experience as a manager, both of football teams and with the Dubai Road and Transit Authority, to know the value of delegation, but at times it has seemed that all decisions, big and small, are being sorted in his mind before they are made, and the introduction of unexpected problems, be they demands of media or missing bags at the airport, have left him even more frazzled.

Certainly, much is at stake at London 2012.

This is the biggest football stage for the UAE since the 1990 World Cup, when the country was, to be honest, just happy to have a team in the competition.

This is a more mature UAE, and simply being recognised is no longer enough.

In some ways, then, this is the biggest moment in UAE sports history. Bigger than Italy 1990. This time round, the expectations are higher. Fair or otherwise, Mahdi Ali expects results, his players do, the FA does. The nation does.

Those expectations may not be realistic. Uruguay's senior team are ranked No 3 in the world, and their Olympic side include Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, two of the world's elite strikers. Team Great Britain are the opponents in the second match, and England, one of Team GB's constituent parts, are ranked No 4 by Fifa. The final group match is with Senegal, a country that has played in the quarter-finals of a World Cup.

Both Captain Mahdi, as he is invariably known around the team, and the president of the FA have declared the quarter-finals as their goal, but to reach the final eight the Emiratis will probably need a victory and a draw. Consider again their opponents.

As if that weren't enough, Mahdi Ali must also have a small corner of his mind that is working the calculus of what his team need to do here for him to be offered the job coaching the senior national team. Abdullah Misfir has been the interim coach for 10 months now, and a decision regarding the man to lead the 2018 World Cup bid would seem to hang on results here.

Captain Mahdi could be the first Emirati entrusted with leading a World Cup campaign, and add that to the thoughts banging around beneath that red baseball cap.

Inside the mind of Mahdi Ali must be a very stressful place right now.

One could suggest that tonight he will imagine a million Emiratis, from Abu Dhabi to Ras Al Khaimah, having broken their fast, fixated on their televisions, and not be far wrong.

The task is monumental, but he wants nothing more than to make them happy. Such are the burdens of leadership.




TV times, s14