x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

UAE football team can rise to the fore in Asia

Ahmed Rizvi lists three reasons why Mahdi Ali’s men could go deep in the continental championship in Australia next year.

The UAE players, taking part in a training session at Tashkent on Tuesday, are like a band of brothers, writes our columnist. Al Ittihad
The UAE players, taking part in a training session at Tashkent on Tuesday, are like a band of brothers, writes our columnist. Al Ittihad

Last week, before the national team assembled for the trip to Tashkent for their final match of the 2015 Asian Cup qualifying, coach Mahdi Ali was asked again about the prospects of his side in Australia.

“We are currently No 5 in Asia and our goal is to be among the top four nations,” repeated the plain-speaking Emirati. “We must be realistic and not exaggerate on our ambitions because that could affect the players negatively.”

The Emirati fans, spurred by their best national team in more than a decade, will be perhaps expecting a bit more. Ranked No 58 in the world by Fifa and No 47 on the World Football Elo ratings, the team are unbeaten for 19 matches since losing 1-0 to Japan in September, 2012.

They have won the two tournaments they have participated in since: the 2013 Gulf Cup of Nations and the four-nation tournament in Saudi Arabia, where they beat Trinidad & Tobago and New Zealand in their two matches.

In the Asian Cup qualifying, the UAE were among the first – on November 15 as group toppers – to book their tickets for January’s finale in Australia with comfortable wins in all five of their matches. If they beat Uzbekistan on Wednesday night they will finish eight points clear at the top.

So optimism is high, but as Mahdi Ali said, there is no need to exaggerate. A top-four finish is both realistic and achievable, and here are three reasons why:

The coach

Mahdi Ali is a man with the Midas touch.

Taking over the reins of the Under 19 side barely two weeks before the 2008 U19 Asian Championship, he led them to the title, winning every game.

The next year he took the same team to the quarter-finals of the Fifa Youth World Cup in Egypt.

Then came that magical night in Tashkent when the UAE Under 23 team beat Uzbekistan 3-2 to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. It was a first for the young nation but looked improbable after the team started their group campaign with two draws.

His success with the senior national team, then, is a natural progression. He has lost once in 20 matches and the results have not come by chance.

An engineer by profession, planning is Mahdi Ali’s forte. He is a stickler for details.

He is not too worried about irking the clubs by demanding the players for long camps, or annoying the media by refusing them access to speaking to players.

Hence the break in league action while the national team gathered well in advance of tomorrow’s games.

How international managers around the world, most of whom have their squad just 72 hours before games, would love the kind of time Mahdi Ali gets.

Band of brothers

A majority of the players in Mahdi Ali’s squad are in the 23-24 age group and have been playing together for more than a decade.

So trust and togetherness have been a big part of their success. There is plenty of quality as well, with the likes of Omar Abdulrahman, Amer Abdulrahman and Ahmed Khalil, even if the first two are absent in this squad.

Mahdi Ali has made sure no player feels indispensable or superior to the others.

He has repeatedly claimed all 22 players in his squad are equal and has proven that through his selections: despite the absence of the two Abdulrahmans through injury, Ismail Matar was not called for the trip to Uzbekistan.

Success breeds success

Mahdi Ali has used these words often and it is true. Not many teams in the international arena have gone unbeaten for 19 matches and every positive result has only served to strengthen the belief of the players.

Through the years, at the senior or youth levels, this group have beaten every team they are likely to meet in January – Iran, Australia, Iraq, North Korea, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, South Korea or Uzbekistan.

Confidence, then, will be on a high, whatever the opposition.

arizvi@thenational.ae

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