x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

UAE must let Khalil blossom

AFC award winner has world at his feet but an eventual move away from homeland to Europe maybe the only way he will fulfill his potential.

Khalil, centre, celebrates with Rashed al-Falasi, left, and Amir al-Hammadi after a goal in against Uzbekistan during the AFC Under 19 Championship Final in Dammam on November 14.
Khalil, centre, celebrates with Rashed al-Falasi, left, and Amir al-Hammadi after a goal in against Uzbekistan during the AFC Under 19 Championship Final in Dammam on November 14.

Football in the UAE seems to be at odds with itself. An ongoing contradiction in terms. It courts knowhow and expertise from overseas, but fails to see the benefits and potential goodwill that can be raised by exporting the country's own talent. In trying to enhance standards, a professional league was introduced this year and money and inducements have been tossed at some starry coaches and players. Millionaire types when you consider the luring of the Brazil striker Rafael Sobis to Al Jazira and Al Ain's Chile player Jorge Valdivia to front up the game.

If only the authorities could see the benefit of instigating an exchange programme when they discover riches on their own doorstep, especially when the opportunity presents itself to usher in a player such as Ahmed Khalil. Whatever celebrations and backslapping the UAE FA have indulged in over Khalil's winning of the Asian Youth Player of the Year, and there appears to have been much fanfare, this is not a time for anybody to stand still or feel overly good about themselves.

The bouncy Ismail Matar, nominated for the Asian player of the year, remains the great hope of UAE football even in his advancing years as a performer. He helped the UAE win the Gulf Cup last year, but there is something innately depressing about watching Matar play out a career in front of empty spaces with Al Wahda. While players such as Sobis will move on, Matar it seems cannot escape his sandy destiny.

It is worth pointing out, that if Khalil is confined to these parts in future years, the world will never know how good he is or could be. Japan's Shinji Ono and Iran's Mehdi Mahdavikia are both former winners of Khalil's award, and leaving their homelands only encouraged their worth. Ono played for six seasons in Hollland at Feyernoord and is currently in the Bundesliga with Bochum. Mahdavikia, a former Bochum man also, played more than 200 games at heavyweights Hamburg. Both went on to be crowned Asian Footballer of the Year.

If Khalil has a genuine chance to develop, then a period of time spent at a European club would seem like a sensible option. The imminent problems that Khalil must deal with and confront is that when you are hot as player, everyone wants a piece of you. At 17, Khalil, like any knowledgeable coach will inform you, has reached a crucial period in his development. A striker whose five goals made him the top scorer and the competition's most valuable player in the UAE's rise to winning the AFC Under 19 title, is in more in need of guidance than plaudits.

In inspiring his side's winning of such a tournament in Saudi Arabia, Khalil participated in five games in 15 days before being tossed into the senior side's 1-1 draw with Iran in a World Cup qualifying match. Apart from encountering for the first time the hyperbole that swirls around award ceremonies, Khalil is said to be struggling to rid himself of a back problem. It could be growing pains, or just the natural outcome of overuse.

The football scene is strewn with countless underachievers, who were prosperous in their formative years, but by their mid-twenties were found wanting. As a teenager, he does not need to be flogged to death by his club or country. Of all the soundbites made over the past 24 hours, those of Ivan Hasek, his Czech coach at Al Ahli, seem to make most sense. "He is injured now and I don't know for how long. I hope it is for just one week, but it could be a month or even more," said Hasek. "If things continue like this, we are going to lose him for the full season.

"Now he is out with injury, and nobody is profiting from it." The UAE, for all its wealth and love of football, remains a backwater in the level of maturity it has reached and the ability to further promote what seems to be a blossoming talent. @Email:dkane@thenational.ae