x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

UAE's long climb to the top

The current UAE squad might, just might, be the ones to help realise a footballing dream by reaching the 2014 World Cup.

Mohammed Al Shehhi is head and shoulders above the Lebanese opposition during last night's 7-2 win for the UAE.
Mohammed Al Shehhi is head and shoulders above the Lebanese opposition during last night's 7-2 win for the UAE.

Close your eyes and imagine. It is June 2013. Before a capacity crowd of 48,000 at Zayed Stadium, the UAE have clinched a berth in the 2014 World Cup finals with a 1-0 victory in the final game of Asian Football Confederation group qualifiers.

The country explodes in celebration. Traffic is gridlocked in all seven emirates. Horns blare, children hang out of car windows, flags in one fist, cans of Silly String in the other. Strangers hug each other. Fireworks flash over any and every corniche from Abu Dhabi to Ras al Khaimah. A nation gridlocked by joy.

Hard to imagine a bigger sports moment in this football-mad country.

Maybe an Emirati driver for an Emirati team securing the Formula One driver's championship at Yas Marina Circuit. Maybe …

Well, no, not even that.

The World Cup: the ultimate prize on these shores. A tournament the country has not played in since 1990. A generation ago.

Five attempts to qualify. Five failures. One close call: the home-and-away with Iran in 2001 to settle who would go to the 2002 World Cup. Iran won 1-0 in Tehran. In the home leg, Iran's Ali Daei scored in the seventh minute, effectively putting the UAE three goals down because of the "away goal" rule. It finishes 3-0, and Iran go to Japan/South Korea.

Sigh.

Four years ago, the UAE got to the final group stage but then collapsed; winning only one point from eight games and finishing bottom of a group which included the Koreas, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

This week, the road to Brazil 2014 begins when India play the UAE at Khalifa Stadium in Al Ain on Saturday. A home-and-away tie. The winner on aggregate advances to the first round of group play, along with 19 other teams. Five groups, with the top two in each group moving ahead next March. The final stage of group play is two groups of five, with the top two in each group booking a place in South America.

That is how it works. Straightforward, but seemingly so far away. Or is it?

The time for irrational exuberance is, certainly, now, before the first ball is kicked. But is it really irrational to suggest this is the best-looking UAE team since the men who made the finals in 1990?

This is not the same team that went limp in 2009 World Cup qualifying. It barely is the same team that failed to score in three games at the Asian Cup in January.

Partly through design, partly because of circumstance, the UAE are leaning heavily on the cadre of young players who have performed so well in international competitions the past three years.

We could see these guys coming: Amer Abdulrahman, Hamdan Al Kamali and Ahmed Khalil pushed their way into the first team for the Asian Cup. But now it seems as if they and their age-group compatriots are all ready to play. Omar Abdulrahman, Theyab Awana, Mohammed Fawzi. Because they are good. Because the older guys aren't as competent. Because some of the veterans, such as Subait Khater and Ismail Matar, who each played in that game against Iran in 2001, are hurt.

The biggest issue facing the national side is simple yet profound: the struggle to score goals. If the friendly with Lebanon last night at Khalifa Stadium - a 7-2 victory - is any indication, the trouble may be near an end. Ahmed Khalil, the player of tomorrow for years now, scored three goals. The UAE came forward confidently, with Amer Abdulrahman pulling the strings masterfully.

This happy confluence of young talent is led by Srecko Katanec, an inspired choice to lead a UAE side. Katanec comes from Slovenia, a nation of barely two million people that has qualified for two of the past three World Cups. He understands from personal experience what it means to play for a country with talent, but perhaps not loads of it. He is working with a talent pool taken from one million Emiratis.

Katanec is not a coach who complains about what he doesn't have. "We still have to play the games even if some players are not in the squad," he said. "I will put together a good team."

He also communicates confidence. He prefaces remarks about India with the time-honoured nod towards the vagaries of the game. Football is strange, we have to play at 120 per cent, etc. But he doesn't bother with building up a lesser opponent. Of India he said: "We are the better team, 100 per cent."

First India, then a group with at least one of the continent's top five teams in it, and then the final group of five. It will be a process neither quick nor easy, and five consecutive UAE sides have failed to negotiate the path. This one, however, feels like they could come out at the end, and if they do, imagine the party in 2013.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae