UAE's Ali Mabkhout and Ali Kasheif bask in the limelight, but success in Bahrain has made them hungry for more, writes Omar Al Raisi.
UAE Gulf Cup heroes Mabkhout and Kasheif enjoying their new celebrity
Ali Kasheif and Ali Mabkhout can vouch for the star-making power of a Gulf Cup championship.
When the UAE national team defeated Iraq 2-1 in the final of the tournament, in Bahrain last month, it set off celebrations among their compatriots and reinforced the celebrity status of the champion footballers.
"Since we arrived back in the country everybody who sees us wants to take a picture or get an autograph and wants to shake our hands and congratulate us," said Mabkhout, the forward who scored two goals in the tournament.
"As a professional footballer, we are happy that we are being recognised more now as champions, and we would like to continue that."
"Since I arrived back, everyone who sees me recognises me easily and wants to take a picture and some want to have a signed shirt," said Kasheif, the goalkeeper for four of the five victories in Manama. "I feel blessed."
The Al Jazira teammates fully grasped the enormity of their victory when they landed at Al Ain airport, the day after the championship, and were met by hundreds of fans, and whisked to an audience with Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE.
Before the week was out, the cup-winning team had visited several palaces and had been showered with gifts, from all seven emirates, totalling Dh174 million.
"The reception from the fans was amazing, and it was a proud moment for us to be invited by the Rulers of the country to their palaces," Kasheif said.
He said the new celebrity has not become a burden.
"It is not scary," he said. "To be famous is one thing and how to use your fame is another. We should use it in a positive way and work harder, which is what we are doing.
"We have had no rest."
Much of the senior side played Pro League games within days of their return, then went off to China for a training camp ahead of tomorrow's opening qualifying match for the 2015 Asian Cup, against Vietnam in Hanoi.
Mabkhout and Kasheif said the senior side, reinforced by the age-group players who took part in the London 2012 Olympics, realise that many challenges lie ahead of them.
"As a group we have talked that we are lucky to have many talented players who have emerged at the same time," Kasheif said. "The best part is that we grew up together from the youth ranks and now are in the senior national side."
Mabkhout said: "For sure, we have a lot of talented players in our team, and we are not getting carried away. This is just the start. We still have a lot to accomplish on the pitch."
Mahdi Ali, the coach of the national team, will have been reiterating that point ahead of tomorrow's match in Hanoi. Vietnam are a rising side; their current Fifa ranking of 134 is higher than that held by the UAE (138) only 13 months ago. Inside a year the Emiratis had climbed the table to end 2012 at No 96.
The top two out of a four-team group including Uzbekistan and Hong Kong advance to the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, and if the Emiratis fail to finish first or second, the Vietnamese likely will be one of the two teams above them.
Kasheif and Mabkhout have faith that Mahdi Ali can help them realise their potential as footballers, with the Asian Cup one goal and the 2018 World Cup another.
"I like the way he reads the game and figures out on the spot what is going wrong," Kasheif said. "His substitutions are really good, which can change a game. This happened many times in the Gulf Cup."
The Jazira teammates say players on the national team will not overlook their club commitments. After the game in Hanoi, they will return to the Pro League, where their club are tied second behind Al Ain. Jazira are the President's Cup holders and meet their Abu Dhabi rivals Al Wahda on Monday, with a place in the semi-finals at stake, and play Ajman away on February 14 in a league match. Jazira begin play in the Asian Champions League later this month, and on March 22 they are back to Asian Cup qualifying in a home match with Uzbekistan.
"This will not effect our club form," Kasheif said of the extended time with the national team. "We know when to switch on and when to switch off for club and country."
Mabkhout said: "Some clubs do not have any players in the national team, and they might have a little advantage in the league because of that, but this is what we want - we want to be involved in every competition for club and country."
For now, the focus is on Vietnam and Australia 2015.
"It's not good for us to be thinking about winning the Asian Cup," Mabkhout said.
"We have utmost respect for the teams involved, like Japan and South Korea. Once we qualify, we will target to get into the knockout rounds, and then we will see."
Kasheif acknowledged the team face expectations, but those do not translate into mental or emotional burdens, he said.
"There is no pressure on us, if we do not qualify for the Asian Cup or the World Cup," he said.
"We had expectations before the Gulf Cup, but we kept our feet on the ground, worked hard, and now we are the Gulf Cup champions, and we will do the same in the Asian Cup."
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