x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

UAE footballers inspire a nation

UAE side overturned a two-goal deficit to qualify for London - and Emiratis and expatriates revelled in the team's success.

UAE fans cheer on the national team before the start of the game against Uzbekistan.
UAE fans cheer on the national team before the start of the game against Uzbekistan.

ABU DHABI // The first 50 minutes of the UAE's most important football match for 22 years did not make for easy viewing yesterday, but fans soon forgot their worries after the country qualified for this year's London Olympics.

But they had to do it the hard way, coming back from two goals down to Uzbekistan to clinch a famous 3-2 victory. The win means the Under 23 team will now travel to the UK this summer to compete in the Olympic football competition for the first time in their history.

Things did not start out promisingly, admitted Thabet Al Qaissieh, from Abu Dhabi, but it was inspiring to see the team pull through in the end.

The UAE, who were playing in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, were one of the last teams in the Asia group to qualify.

"It was a rough start, considering the weather and the great performance of the home team ... the key to the UAE win was determination," said Mr Al Qaissieh.

Abdullah Al Hamiri, 31, from Al Ain, watched all the action on a small TV screen, and he thought the condition of the pitch added to the UAE's first-half woes.

"The ground is very bad," said the PR executive, who was one of dozens watching the game at Al Hajaz Cafe, in Abu Dhabi.

"It made it very difficult to play."

Heading straight to the cafe after work, Mr Al Hamiri and his friends were determined to see the UAE score within the first half-hour, as he thought "those 30 minutes crucial to the final score".

"We will see, but I think they will score in the first half-hour. If we score the first goal, we will be the best team and will make a go of it."

Waving his hands in frustration during the first quarter of the game, Mr Al Hamiri's prediction did not pan out - but he ended the match on a high note.

"Now, I am very happy, but when my team lost in the first half, I wanted to break everything on my table."

The win not only means more to Mr Al Qaissieh, an Emirati businessman, than when the UAE qualified for the 1990 World Cup, but, he said, it spoke volumes of the country's progress in the world of football.

"This also shows the UAE can produce an all-UAE national team - the manager as well - [which] can compete internationally."

Echoing his thoughts, Noura Al Hammadi, from Dubai, thought the win was "inspirational".

"The win is a great inspiration for all Emiratis and it shows that everything can be achieved through a strong determination."

While Ms Al Hammadi watched the game from the comfort of her home, Christina Hebert, a teacher at a private language institute in Abu Dhabi, was only able to catch the second half during a break from work. Nonetheless, she said the game, which the United States expatriate watched with some of her Emirati students, was great.

"It was awesome. [I am] so proud of the UAE team. I can't wait to see them take on the world in London."

With Ahmed Khalil scoring the equaliser at the 54th minute, and Haboush Saleh firing in a third three minutes into injury time, the students - and their teacher - were forced to choose between work and the game.

The choice was easy, said Ms Hebert. "It was really fun. The students were watching and the bell rang to go back to class, but the score was 2-2. "It was too exciting, there was no way [we were] going back to class right then. We extended the break and watched the UAE bring it home together."

The first half was intense because of the UAE's tactics, added 27-year-old Ameer Yaaser, from Abu Dhabi, who watched the game at Garden Cafe, in the Tanker Mei area.

"They were playing defence in the first half because if they had achieved a draw, then they would have gone through. They just wanted a draw."

The match also had the country's tweeters all abuzz.

Anas Bukhash, the managing partner of Ahdaaf Sports Club in Dubai, tweeted: "Feeling ecstatic and VERY proud of the fight and willingness to win shown by our #KhalifaBoys. They made the #UAEproud!,"

Mr Yaaser, who supports Al Ain, spoke for the thousands of UAE fans around the country when he said that a feeling of relief spread after the third and decisive goal was scored.

Smoking a celebratory shisha with his friends, he said that it was a great evening. With a huge grin on his face, he added: "For me, this is enough. This is the best."