x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The whole country behind Wahda

The opening match of the Club World Cup on December 8 marks a momentous day and while they possess a mean defence, the Pro League champions have found goals hard to come by this term.

Ismail Matar is still considered the UAE's best forward and Josef Hickersberger, the Al Wahda coach, will look to him to score the goals to help the Pro League champions make their mark at Club World Cup.
Ismail Matar is still considered the UAE's best forward and Josef Hickersberger, the Al Wahda coach, will look to him to score the goals to help the Pro League champions make their mark at Club World Cup.

A certain Josef Hickersberger from Abu Dhabi made a 17-hour journey to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea to watch Hekari United play Koloale of the Solomon Islands in an Oceania Football Confederation game on November 13.

Hickersberger undertook the trip because Hekari, who are coming to the Club World Cup (CWC), do not feature prominently in world football and are rarely seen on television, even in their home country.

"Hekari won 4-0 and from what I saw, they are a side similar to one of our middle-level Pro League sides, and if we can play well, we can win," Hickersberger said of his side's opponents in the opening match of the event on December 8.

The Austrian coach is one of the rare few to have played in one World Cup (1978) and coached in another (1990), and he is experienced in preparing a squad for a big occasion. Wahda's looming appearance in the CWC in Abu Dhabi certainly qualifies as a momentous occasion for a Pro League club.

If Wahda are successful against Hekari, they will meet Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma of South Korea, the Asian Champions League winners, three days later. If the Abu Dhabi club progress further they would play the European champions, Inter Milan, in a semi-final on December 15.

"That would be a dream not only for Wahda but for the whole nation," said Hickersberger, who led the club to the Pro League title and a place in the CWC as hosts.

"The Football Association has backed us in our preparation and the whole country is looking up at us to give a good impression in this competition. We have a pretty decent side and should be able to fulfil that dream." Wahda were established in 1974 but they did not win any major domestic competitions until the first of their four league titles in the 1998/99 season. The club has been a major force in the top-flight league since then.

Their success was fuelled by a succession of players who emerged from the club's academy.

Four who joined the club in 1996/97 - Abdulraheem Jumaa, Haider Ali, Basheer Saeed and Fahed Masoud - remain key players in the side and have represented the country internationally.

The next crop of players included Ismail Matar, who is still regarded as the best forward in the country, and the latest wave includes Hamdan al Kamali, Mohammed al Shehhi, Saeed al Kathiri and Adel al Hosani, the goalkeeper. All were members of the Asian Games squad that won a silver medal in China last week.

One weak link Wahda have had over the years has been in goal, but they signed Mutaz Abdulla, a veteran from Al Ain, on a two-year contract last season.

Abdulla suffered a broken ankle in the first game he played for his new club, against Al Ahli in September 2009, and had not seen action until three weeks ago when he played against Al Dhafra in the Etisalat Cup.

He is likely to remain the first-choice goalkeeper ahead of al Hosani, who travelled with the Olympic team for the Asian Games last month but did not play.

Hickersberger can choose from four foreign players, Fernando Baiano, Magrao and Hugo, all Brazilians, and Modibo Diarra, the Ivory Coast forward, who has been recalled to the squad.

Diarra was a summer signing from Baniyas, but after two matches Wahda chose to replace him with Hugo as one of their three foreign players allowed by the Pro League. However, there is no limit on the foreign players in the CWC and Diarra was named in the 23-player list on Monday.

Wahda have been strong in defence this season, yielding only five goals in eight Pro League matches. Conversely, goals have been a concern; the club was held scoreless in four league matches, and 10 of their 15 goals came in two matches. When Hickersberger rejoined the team as coach in October he said his first job was to "find a second scorer".

Wahda rounded off a training camp in Egypt last week with a 1-0 win over Ismaily, the Cairo side, last Friday. They will play a final warm-up match with Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia on Friday ahead of their meeting with Hekari.

apassela@thenational.ae

Al Wahda

Home Abu Dhabi, UAE
How qualified won the 2009/10 Pro League championship
Founded 1974
Coach Josef Hickersberger
Domestic championships 4
Key victory Beat city rivals Al Jazira 2-1 thanks to a Fernando Baiano double, which helped them take the Pro League title.