x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The Olympics are a step into unknown for Mahdi Ali and his men

It was a game that will be forever in the annals of UAE football history. Paul Oberjuerge was there to witness the Khalil-led fightback.

The UAE Olympic team came back from two nil down to win 3-2 and qualify for London 2012.
The UAE Olympic team came back from two nil down to win 3-2 and qualify for London 2012.

When the final whistle blew in Tashkent last night, Mahdi Ali and the UAE Olympic team passed into terra incognito. And he couldn't be happier that, as yet, he has no idea what, exactly, comes next.

"I had a plan that took us through this match," he said after the 3-2 victory over Uzbekistan. "After this …"

He shrugged. He smiled.

Qualifying for London 2012 began in February of last year. Mahdi Ali had a plan for every day from then till now. When to gather his players. How to train them. Where to train them. How many friendly matches to schedule. When to travel. When to get on the bus to go to the stadium.

Now? Nothing ahead but blank pages in his diary. How best to prepare for the Summer Olympics football tournament? No UAE coach or technical committee ever has had to tackle that one.

Such is Mahdi Ali's dedication to his work that he seemed to be one of the few people in the Emirati delegation who wasn't hugging and kissing someone, or trying on an enormous wig in the colours of the flag, or chanting or singing.

The celebration really began in the third minute of extra time, when a nervous 2-2 draw - good enough for London but one goal from a play-off in Hanoi - turned into a 3-2 lead. When Haboush Saleh's goal hit the back of the net, everyone in the UAE dugout flew off the bench and charged to the end of the field. Players, coaches, administrators.

It was happening. It really was happening. A 3-2 lead, needing only a draw to advance, with seconds to play ... the party began.

Hardly had the players risen from touching their heads to the ground and praying as they faced Mecca, the referee blew his whistle to end the match, and the giddiness became more widespread. Every player hugged every other player. Every coach hugged every coach and every player. The 200 or so Emiratis who travelled to the match and filled the south-east corner of JAR Stadium took the madness up to another level, jumping and shouting and screaming.

When the players came off the field, the changing room was a scene of unrestrained joy of the sort that is perhaps best expressed by young men who have just accomplished something as a team.

So many had done so well.

Khalid Essa, the goalkeeper, seemed shaky early, and perhaps he could have done better on the first Uzbek goal, when he was off his line. But he made several key saves in the second half, including a split-second push of a shot from point-blank range.

Mohammed Ahmed and Al Kamali were steady in the middle of the defence, over the final 45 minutes, and the outside backs, Abdulaziz Hussain and Abdulaziz Mohammed, had shown speed and daring in penetrating up the flanks.

Khamis Ismail and Habib Fardan helped control the middle of the park, and Rashid Essa was a menace on the flank. Ahmed Ali was active up top.

And then there were Omar Abdulrahman and Ahmed Khalil, who were outstanding. The former showed technical skills not often seen at any level of football, and he did it on a pitch that was about 30 minutes from degenerating into a expanse of goo.

And Khalil? If the UAE are going to score easy goals, seemingly instant goals, it is going to be the work of Khalil. It seems strange to have perhaps the team's best athlete taking free kicks, but you understand why when he can bang in a 20-yard bending screamer of a shot, as he did to make a 2-0 hopeless cause a 2-1 game.

It was Omar Abdulrahman and Khalil in tandem for the next goal, when the little kid with the big hair (even when not wearing a silly wig) flicked on a crossing pass, and it went right to Khalil, whose first touch was a shot that powered into the net.

Ali was particularly proud of Khalil. "Before the game I told Ahmed, 'You will score again', because he is very lucky against Uzbekistan. I am happy he came back; he was injured and trained with team for four days only, and did not play in a friendly, and I am very happy for him. It was time for him to come back to his level again."

And the substitutes did their part, as well. Ali Mabkhout set up the goal that Saleh scored. Mohammed Fawzi brought fresh legs to the middle of the field.

Now, more planning must be done. And one difficult question presents itself right off. On July 27, should the team rest up from their opening match the day before, or march in opening ceremonies? A tough call, but one the Emiratis are happy to make.