x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Young, gifted and ready

The UAE fell at the quarter-final stage of the Under 20 World Cup in Egypt, but, as Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed said, they can hold their heads high.

UAE's Ahmed Khalil says he had a poor tournament.
UAE's Ahmed Khalil says he had a poor tournament.

The UAE fell at the quarter-final stage of the Under 20 World Cup in Egypt, but, as Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed said, they can hold their heads high. Mahdi Ali's side, packed with talent across the park, have indeed made UAE football proud, flying the country's flag with a gusto rarely seen in the past, at least not since the senior squad's qualification for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Avid followers of the game in the country swear they have not seen a better group of players emerge from the UAE and many predict that the senior national team would suffer a heavy defeat if they were to face-off against these youngsters.

Accolades have poured in from outside as well. The Venezuela coach, Cesar Farias, whose team were beaten 2-1 by the UAE in the second round, likened them to Brazil, while the Brazilian coach, Rogerio, reportedly visited their dressing room after the defeat to Costa Rica in the quarter-final to congratulate the players on their thrilling display. Rogerio told UAE team officials he would have enjoyed pitting his team against the exciting, youngsters in the semis, instead of Costa Rica, a team they trounced 5-0 in the group stages.

The U20s have created a buzz among the scouts as well. Approaches have already been made for the goalkeeper Yousif Abdulrahman, with offers to play in England and France. Talks are still at an early stage and the 20-year-old is obviously excited. "Let's see what happens," he said. "I have a five-year contract with Al Ain, so everything will depend on the club." Yousif is not the only Abdulrahman to get noticed. The diminutive playmaker Amer has also been getting rave reviews. The smallest man in the team, he was a colossus among them, with monumental performances.

Blessed with a talent deserving of a bigger stage, Amer was like a Pied Piper with the ball at his feet and a procession of hapless opponents following him; the only way to dispossess him was to concede a foul. He showed great vision when spraying the ball around, and stealth too when taking the ball off his opponent. Local clubs are making a beeline for the Baniyas man and there has been interest from overseas as well. "There is not much I can tell you at the moment," he said. "Things are still a bit in the air. We will know over the coming days."

The captain Hamdan al Kamali, hailed as the "Kaiser", in reference to Franz Beckenbauer, among supporters, has certainly put himself in the shopping window as well with an unflinching, tough-tackling show at the heart of the UAE's defence. Al Kamali played every minute of UAE's five games in the tournament and the Al Wahda strongman is hoping his performances will not go unnoticed. "It's my dream to play in Europe," said Kamali, who supports Barcelona and Inter Milan. "No players from the UAE have played abroad, but I believe after our performance in the World Cup, you will see someone soon."

Al Kamali's Wahda teammate, Ahmed Ali, and Baniyas's Theyab Awana have also generated plenty of interest with their high work-rate in the UAE attack, but the team's biggest attraction, Ahmed Khalil, says he has probably let himself and the team down. The 2008 Asian Youth Player of the Year and winner of the Golden Boot at the Asian U19 Championship last year was one of the star attractions for scouts in Egypt, but his profligacy in front of goal has probably put his dream of playing in Europe on hold.

"I have always dreamed of playing for one of the big clubs in Europe," said the 18-year-old Al Ahli striker. "But I think for now, I will just have to go back to my club and work harder to achieve my goals. "I missed just too many chances and I cannot understand why. This thing has never happened before. So I need to figure out what went wrong. After winning the awards at the Asian Championship, I was hoping to repeat those achievements in Egypt. I am really disappointed I couldn't, but I know I will come back stronger."

Khalil's Ahli teammate Mohammed Fawzi and fellow striker Ali Mabkhoot will also be returning home with the same wish. Fawzi was expected to be at the heart of UAE's midfield along side Amer, but he seemed a bit rusty after an injury. Mabkhoot, getting the nod ahead of Ahmed Ali for the first game, was missing his scoring boots. The rest - including Mohammed Fayez, Abdulaziz Hussain, Habib al Fardan, Sultan al Menhali and Mohammed Ahmed - fought with all their might for the team and have the bruises to show for it.

Together, with their grit and persistence, they brought UAE football to the world's attention. They are the future and it is bright. arizvi@thenational.ae