x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Olympic team are beaten but unbowed

They may have lost but for the thousands who crowded the restaurants and shisha cafes all over the country the UAE football team had produced a glorious moment.

UAE players leave the pitch after first round Group A Match of the London 2012 Olympic Games
UAE players leave the pitch after first round Group A Match of the London 2012 Olympic Games

They may have lost but for the thousands who crowded the restaurants and shisha cafes all over the country the UAE football team had produced a glorious moment.

For almost 20 magical minutes supporters at home and at Manchester United's Old Trafford were in dreamland.

Ismail Matar, still believed to be the UAE's best-ever player, had conjured up a 23rd-minute goal against one of the Olympic tournament's hot favourites, Uruguay.

That Uruguay equalised in the 42nd minute and then scored a 56th minute winner was of no consequence. The young UAE team had shown the world that the nation's football is on the up.

"We hope we can be leaders in the sport at least in our region in the future," said Mohamed Saleh Ali Al Saadi, 32, as he made his way after the game from a shisha cafe in the heart of the Shawamikh area.

And ever-hopeful Hussein Al Harithi was optimistic - and not just for the forthcoming game against Great Britain at Wembley on Sunday night.

"The way UAE played gives me big hope for not only the future for these Olympic games but also the future of Emirati football in general," he said. "Regardless of the defeat I am still very proud."

Mr Al Saadi had hurried from his iftar and had missed the kick-off.

"I took a quick snack to get here and I don't think I was the only one. When I arrived 10 minutes after the start of the game this place was full already."

He and his friends were determined to watch the game regardless of the timing.

"We even used half-time to pray right here in the cafe, which can get difficult once the noise starts to increase at the start of the second half," Mr Al Saadi said.

Mr Al Saadi agreed that the Olympic football team's success was due to the support they received not only from the leaders of the country but also because of their age.

"Players at this younger age are more motivated than the regular national team," he said.

He said the Emirati youth in general were growing up with football in their culture, more so than previous generations, thanks to the new sports schools and facilities.

"You can see it in the level of play with this Olympic team," pointing to a near miss by the UAE that almost secured what would have been a remarkable 2-2 draw.

He said that the team played "well for the first 30 minutes and then started to decline after that."

He believed the reason for this may have been because the team were playing during Ramadan.

"Even if the players are not fasting I think it is difficult to be away from your family and country during the Holy Month when you've spent your whole life close to them during this spiritual time.

"The UAE as a country is excelling in all aspects, from business to tourism, so it is only fitting that they excel in football as well."

Hussein Salim Al Harthi, 26, who works for the Civil Defence, said that he had rushed from his iftar to make it to the cafe in time for kick-off.

“We were hoping for this for a long time,” he said of the team reaching the Olympics.

When the UAE scored the opening goal, the cafe erupted with screams of celebration.

Mr Al Harthi said as the team have progressed in the past 20 years, so has their fanbase. In 1990, he said, only 10 per cent of Emiratis even knew the team existed.

“Everybody is behind the team today. I would say the football teams in the UAE get 99 per cent of the support while the other sports get the rest.”

Talking of his expectations of the team Mr Al Harthi said he was being realistic.

“I don’t need the team to lift the gold medal. I just hope they reach the knockout stages – and I think they can.

“I am very proud of this team and look forward to supporting them in their future.”

tsubaihi@thenational.ae