Olympics 2012: The veterans of the 1990 World Cup pass on words of wisdom to young Emirati hopefuls, writes Paul Oberjuerge
Olympics: Teamwork vital on big stage for UAE footballers
They played for a small country in a grand tournament, including the UAE at the 1990 World Cup, and they have insight and advice for the Emirati footballers who are about to compete in the London 2012 Olympics.
"This is big tournament that is something different from playing in Asia or the Gulf, and you have to feel this," said Abdulqadir Hassan, a goalkeeper with the UAE's World Cup team at Italy 22 years ago.
"All the world can see the UAE, through you, and you will want to show your best.
"We have good players, and they can do something if they believe."
The UAE's first global football competition was the 1990 World Cup; their second is this one, at the London Games.
Abdulrahman Mohammed, a midfielder on the 1990 World Cup team, told The National's Gary Meenaghan that the Olympians' compatriots will be watching closely, and perhaps with a less critical eye than the players might expect.
The 1990 World Cup team went home after defeats by Colombia, West Germany and Yugoslavia, but Mohammed said: "We made an entire nation happy. I spoke to my friends back home after each game; they had watched on TV and they all said the same thing: 'Well done'.
"Nobody was angry that we lost, everybody was simply proud of what we had achieved."
He said watching big tournaments on television is one matter, and playing in one is another.
"When you are there, it is another feeling altogether," he said. "It is unbelievable."
The 2012 UAE Olympic team come from a more sophisticated and professional era of domestic football, and their goal is to advance past the group stage, despite their place in a difficult group, with Uruguay, Team Great Britain and Senegal.
Josef Hickersberger, the former Al Wahda coach who led the Olympians Ismail Matar and Hamdan Al Kamali at the Abu Dhabi club, played for Austria in the 1978 World Cup and coached his compatriots in the 1990 tournament. In each competition, not much was expected from them.
But the 1978 World Cup team, which featured Hickersberger as a holding midfielder, survived the group stage.
"We were a small country with Spain, Sweden and Brazil in our group, but we beat Spain and Sweden and got through," he said.
"We were the long outsider, maybe like the UAE is in London. It, maybe, is an example of what can happen and what is possible."
Gaining the last eight will not be easy, he said.
"Everybody has to give his best, and they have to know they have a chance only as a team," he said. "There is not one player who can win the match. They need a good team performance.
"They need to embrace the moment, and if it all comes together there is a chance because it's football."
As a coach, he believed it crucial to impart to players that they are not doomed to failure. "I always tried to make them believe they were not just underdogs, that in football you never know what will happen."
He outlined how the UAE can beat a team like Uruguay, the Emiratis' opponent in their first match here in the 2012 Olympics, at Old Trafford on Thursday.
"You have to choose the right approach," he said. "You must make a good start, and if you defend properly, sooner or later you will get one or two chances, and if you take those chances and score first, you have a chance even against the best team in the world."
Hassan stressed the opportunity to play at Old Trafford and Wembley, two of the most-storied venues in football.
"That is a great opportunity for them, to play in Manchester and at Wembley," he said.
"That will be great for the players. They will have a chance to show the big clubs what sort of skills they have."
He conceded hopes are high for a group of young men who have always got good results. "We expect much, and I think they will do something very good," he said. "This is a strong federation, and the players are serious and they have good coaches. And they have shown that they have something inside, to do what they did and qualify for London."
Mohammed said the event will be memorable, no matter the outcome.
"When we went out [at Italy], I looked around and all these people were in awe, talking about us. I thought to myself: 'Now, I am a footballer.'"