x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

The UAE players are the problem

The Football Association should address mentality of those on the pitch, rather than firing men in the dugout.

The UAE's Khalid Sabeel, top, visibly wincing following a heavy challenge from a Lebanon defender. Bruno Metsu, the former Emirates coach, had said when leaving his post in 2008 that national players are 'not physically strong' and hinted they lack fighting spirit when they are behind in matches. Wael Hamzeh / EPA
The UAE's Khalid Sabeel, top, visibly wincing following a heavy challenge from a Lebanon defender. Bruno Metsu, the former Emirates coach, had said when leaving his post in 2008 that national players are 'not physically strong' and hinted they lack fighting spirit when they are behind in matches. Wael Hamzeh / EPA

It seems like deja vu.

Hope and hype reigned as the national team began their World Cup qualifying campaign. But within a week a million hearts lie shattered and the coach has lost his job.

It happened in 2008, albeit in the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. This time around, the UAE might not even make that grade after losing to Kuwait at home and then in Lebanon on Tuesday to a team they humbled 7-2 in a friendly not many weeks ago.

Three years ago, in the same month, Bruno Metsu put in his papers after four consecutive defeats: in friendlies against Algeria and Bahrain, and then the qualifiers at home against North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

The Frenchman, however, did not leave without a stinging assessment of UAE football. He accused his players of lacking fighting spirit, physical presence, psychological essence and even commitment.

"The national team has no identity, the players are not physically strong and do not have the culture of maintaining their advantage or returning to the game after conceding a goal or two," Metsu said after one of those defeats.

"They lose concentration, and do not know how to adjust quickly."

At his farewell press conference, Metsu reiterated the point. "I have always defended them, but I saw most of them play without a desire to win," he said. "Most of them lacked fighting spirit.

"Tell me why should the coaches shoulder the responsibility of each defeat? The players should also learn from their mistakes and the fans have a right to know why the team lost."

Srecko Katanec, who was shown the exit door after Tuesday's loss in Beirut, will certainly concur with Metsu, and, like many coaches before him, he has also been vocal about the need for national team strikers to get more playing time with their professional league clubs.

But the Slovenian is unlikely to express his views publicly. Most certainly, he will walk away without a grumble and his critics will be gloating over their victory. A new coach will take over the reins of the team, but will that be the end of the woes for UAE football?

Changing coaches has never really worked. Dominique Bathenay succeeded Metsu and the team finished the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2010 World Cup with a single point from eight matches.

Since the formation of the national team in 1972, 27 men have occupied the coaching post (three of them twice), including the likes of Don Revie, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Mario Zagallo, Carlos Queiroz, Roy Hodgson and Dick Advocaat. That makes for an average tenure of less than 16 months.

Parreira and Zagallo guided the UAE through the 1990 World Cup qualifying campaign, with the former managing the team in Italy. Since then, the authorities have spent millions in the hope of making a second trip to a World Cup finals, but the nation has faced disappointment every time.

Are the coaches responsible for those failures? Most certainly; the final responsibility rests with those in charge and no coach will shirk away from that. Katanec accepted it too.

But a dispassionate review will prove the UAE's problems lie not in the boardroom or the dugout, but out there on the field of play.

It was hard to disagree with Metsu's assessment in 2008, and the current team's uninspiring performance against Lebanon reinforces the idea that those views still have merit.

Back in June, 2009, many were unhappy at Katanec's appointment ahead of Luiz Felipe Scolari, but could the Brazilian 2002 World Cup winning coach had done any better with this team?

At the Asian Cup earlier this year, the UAE topped the charts in terms of shots taken, but they failed to score in three matches and returned home with a single point. Scolari could not have come off his bench to score for the team.

At the Gulf Cup in Yemen last year, the UAE could score in only one of their matches and lost in the semi-final. This dearth of goals has largely been responsible for the team's plight in recent years and that problem cannot be solved unless the clubs show more faith in their local strikers and give them regular playing time.

Every UAE coach of recent times has spoken about this problem and the new coach will face the same issue. The same players, who showed little gumption or pride against Kuwait and Lebanon, will make the team list again because there is no competition for places.

Changing coaches is papering over the cracks. It is time the officials notice the elephant in the room and stop "looking at their feet", as the Saudi Arabia legend Sami Al Jaber advised a day earlier.

Clubs need to put more emphasis on their youth systems and allow players to leave for the tougher leagues in Europe in the interest of the country's football.

Players need to be jolted out of their comfort zones. And someone needs to familiarise them with those eternal words of Bill Shankly: "Football is not a matter of life and death ... It's more important than that."

arizvi@thenational.ae