x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

UAE Under 17 team can follow Iraq’s example

Iraq U17s lost all three matches in 2002 World Cup – like UAE did in this year's tournament – and yet ended up providing backbone of senior side for next decade.

This UAE team were missing players of the class of Ismail Matar and Omar Abdulrahman. Satish Kumar / The National
This UAE team were missing players of the class of Ismail Matar and Omar Abdulrahman. Satish Kumar / The National

“Whatever the score, you can make the UAE proud.”

The man with the megaphone attempted to drum up some passion among a scattered crowd.

The UAE’s match against Slovakia was always going to be primarily about saving face. The UAE’s assistant coach, Abdullah Shaheen, had spoken of a desire among the players for “redemption”. Qualification, a distant possibility at the start of the day, was increasingly a fading dream.

Ivory Coast’s 3-0 win over New Zealand in Group B meant that the UAE could not better their third-place record even should they pull off a win. The other groups offered little hope, either. In the end, all the permutations proved academic. The UAE lost 2-0 and departed the competition meekly.

No longer burdened by expectations, the young Emiratis so nearly had a dream start; Sultan Al Shamsi, back from suspension, shooting straight at the keeper when through after only three minutes. It was reminiscent of Mohammed Al Akberi’s chance in the first minute of the match against Honduras, and we know how that turned out.

How different the UAE’s campaign could have been had the Al Wahda striker given them what would have been a sensational start in that opening match? Alas, it was all downhill from there.

Initially here, the players looked energetic, snapping into tackles and showing more creativity in 30 minutes than the first two matches combined. Not that it brought any tangible rewards, and it was Slovakia who should have taken the lead, Rashed Ahmed acrobatically saving off the line from the marauding Lukas Haraslin.

“You are Zayed’s boys, you can do it,” our man in the stand urged.

But it was Slovakia who scored, Tomas Vestenicky converting an excellent header from a Haraslin free kick with 10 minutes of the half left. Elimination for the UAE was now almost a certainty, though they were thrown the flimsiest of lifelines when Jakub Gric was sent off right on half time.

For the third match in this competition, however, the UAE trailed at half time.

At least one man wasn’t surrendering. “Don’t give up,” came the battle cry from the stands as the players walked off at half time. “Give us your best.”

The UAE and their coach had suffered from rotten luck with injuries, in fairness. Seven minutes into the second half, Khaled Khalfan walked off; maybe injured, definitely unhappy.

Zayed Al Ameri, who scored against Brazil, replaced him and was saluted by the crowd for one of the very few high points of the tournament.

The UAE exit was rubber-stamped when Vestenicky scored with a fine header to make it 2-0.

In the end, the UAE simply were not good enough. The preparations had been positive, the backing by the UAE FA extensive. It was not enough.

The team lacked the quality of previous Emirati generations. There was no Ismail Matar or Ahmed Khalil, never mind an Omar Abdulrahman.

The FA had done well to stick with an Emirati coach, hoping to replicate Mahdi Ali’s success.

It proved an impossible task, and it puts into perspective the huge strides taken since the London Olympics last year by what we can confidently call the UAE’s “golden generation”.

On Tuesday night, the Iraqi coach Muwafaq Zaidan, whose team find themselves in a similar situation to the UAE as they go into their last match, reminded that in 2002, his country’s U17s lost all three matches heavily and yet ended up providing the backbone of the senior side for the next decade.

Perhaps these Emirati kids will recover, too. At the end, the big man with megaphone called them over. “We thank you for your efforts, we thank you,” he shouted.

The spirit might have been willing. Sadly, for now, at least, that was nowhere near enough.