x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Youth can be UAE's salvation

Analysis: As budding stars impress against Kuwait, Paul Oberjuerge looks at the options open to a small nation in the hard world of international football.

Creating a sense of football urgency less than two months after a World Cup is a special challenge. A captain hoists the trophy on the second Sunday of July and all 202 of Fifa's national federations are inclined to exhale and take a mental holiday.

The UAE, however, cannot afford the luxury of complacency. Not even a scant 56 days after Spain defeated Holland 1-0 to win South Africa 2010. The football world is a massively competitive one, and more so, year on year. The UAE side have some highlights in their history, including a World Cup appearance in 1990, a runners-up finish at the 1996 Asian Cup and a fourth-place in the same competition in 1992.

But note the dates: not long ago to the grown-ups in the crowd, but so last-century in the world of modern football. If we shift into the "what have you done for me lately?" frame of mind, the sobering answer from the UAE is: "Not much". Not, at least, as regards the senior national side, which was in action against Kuwait last night in a friendly at Al Wahda club's Al Nahyan Stadium. A keen sense of a ticking clock ought to be in the minds of the Football Association. The Asian Football Confederation may still be one of the weaker continental groupings, but within it lie the seeds for the potential rise of new football powers that old, worked-over territories in Europe and South America cannot produce.

China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam each have almost no history as football powers but possess large (or enormous) populations and varying interest in football. China, in particular, seems destined to be a global player; football is the country's favourite sport. Meantime, the nations that have formed Asia's upper crust for the past two decades show no signs of retreat. Japan and South Korea are sophisticated soccer nations with competitive professional leagues. North Korea just played in the World Cup. Saudi Arabia had appeared in four consecutive World Cups until the last one, and it is by far the most populous Gulf nation, with 27 million people.

Factor in Australia, which has easily qualified twice now as an "Asian" nation, and Iran and Iraq, the defending Asian Cup champions ... and if you are not moving forward in Asia, you soon will be going backward. Which brings us back to the UAE. After recent disappointments on the senior side, including the embarrassment of a one-point-in-eight-matches performance in the final round of Asia qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, signs of slippage had been evident. They must be arrested for the nation to remain a global or even continental player.

Fortunately, Fifa offers us examples of small countries striding onto the world stage. Denmark is a nation of only six million, but it played in South Africa. As did Slovenia, a small Balkan state with a short history as a nation and a population of two million. Slovenia happens to be the home country of Srecko Katanec, the UAE coach who led his national side into the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2000.

e could in fact be an inspired choice for UAE manager; the challenges of coaching Slovenia and the UAE, another small nation, are many and obvious, and if he mastered them once, why can he not do so again? He appears to have some fine young talent at his disposal. The UAE's Under 23 side last month won the Gulf Cup. The U20 team reached the final eight in the world championships in Egypt last year. Four players from those two sides were blended into the first XI last night, and all made positive impressions.

Hamdan al Kamali and Khaled Sabeel formed the right side of the 4-4-2 formation and were active and decisive. Two attacking players particularly impressed, central midfielder Amer Abdulrahman, who seems already to have become the brain of the team, and Ahmed Kahlil, the skilled, fleet and slippery striker. The two of them collaborated to give the UAE a lead in the 23rd minute. Abdulrahman saw Khalil slicing toward goal and found him just onside. Khalil did the rest, sprinting past Kuwait's back line and scoring from 10 metres. Later, Sabeel lofted a perfectly weight pass over half the pitch and Ismail Mater slotted it home. Saeek al Kathiri got the third in injury time.

So, there may be some mettle in the putative "golden generation", and just in time. The UAE needs them to create and maintain the sense of urgency the side need to keep their place on the world football map. @Email:poberjuerge@thenational.ae