x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Uzbekistan stand in the way of Mahdi Ali's dream

The continuity in this group is astonishing, particularly given the upheaval of the country's professional clubs. Tonight, they play for their country, but also for each other.

The UAE players train ahead of their clash with Uzbekistan.
The UAE players train ahead of their clash with Uzbekistan.

The torch at Beijing had barely been blown out, in 2008, when Mahdi Ali first allowed himself to think about the London Olympics. And not as a tourist.

Two months later, he led a group of UAE teenagers to the title at the AFC Under 19 Championship, in Saudi Arabia. His was the first UAE side to win the tournament, which has been staged 36 times since 1959.

The coach did his calculations. He knew that his players would still be young enough to make a run at the London 2012 tournament for U23 sides. And, well, he succumbed to a flight of fancy.

The UAE's team, his team, in the Summer Olympics. In London. It could happen. Yes. It could.

In recent weeks, Ali has spoken of how London 2012 once seemed so distant as to be on the very edge of his vision. Or, shall we say, on the very edge of his imagination.

"Previously, this dream was very small when we started to set up our goals," he conceded yesterday.

But success followed upon age-group success for Ali and his special young men. The quarter-finals of the 2009 Fifa U20 World Cup. The gold medal in the U23 Gulf Cup Championship in 2010. Second place in the Asian Games in China that same year.

Then, last year, a rout of Sri Lanka in the first round of London qualifying. Followed by an unexpected 2-1 aggregate victory over North Korea, including a gritty 1-0 victory before a crowd of 47,000 in Pyongyang. And on to the final phase of qualifying, the group stage.

Before the draw was held on July 7, three teams were placed in each of four pots. The Asian superpowers South Korea, Australia and Japan were placed in Pot 1. The UAE went into Pot 4 with Oman and Malaysia, the three teams deemed least likely to advance. Mahdi Ali was dreaming, all right.

The Emiratis were drawn with Australia, Iraq and Uzbekistan. "I thought it was the strongest of the groups," he said.

But that was because he knew how good his team was, a lowly Pot 4 side. Australia, Iraq and Uzbekistan were about to find out.

In group play, his side were nearly impossible to break down, but they did not begin to move up the table until consecutive 1-0 victories over Iraq and Australia last month, and a 3-0 forfeit victory over Iraq, who used an ineligible player in what had been a 2-0 victory over the Emiratis.

Only one game remains in qualifying for London, and the UAE lead Group B on 11 points. Uzbekistan are second on eight.

A victory or a draw by the Emiratis against Uzbekistan in Tashkent tonight, and Ali's team are through to London.

It is fascinating to do a bit of dissection of the team Ali has been coaching for four years. In the opening match of the 2008 Asian U19 Championship, among the players in Ali's side were Ahmed Khalil, Hamdan Al Kamali, Amer Abdulrahman, Ahmed Ali, Rashid Essa, Mohammed Fawzi, Saad Suroor, Abdulaziz Hussain and Habib Fardan.

Every one of those players will be on the pitch or on the bench tonight, nearly four years later, unless Abdulrahman's foot injury leaves him inactive.

The continuity in this group is astonishing, particularly given the upheaval of the country's professional clubs.

Tonight, they play for their country, but also for each other. And for Mahdi Ali.

Two decades ago, the coach was a very good midfielder for Al Ahli, Perhaps his biggest moment had been in the final of the President's Cup, against Al Shabab, in 1988. He scored the equaliser and winner in a 3-2 Ahli victory.

He was noticed by Carlos Alberto Parreira, the UAE national coach at the time, and brought into the team. In 1990, he was in the side that would represent the UAE in the World Cup in Italy.

One week before the team travelled, he was struck down by injury and left at home. That remains the only appearance by the UAE in the world's biggest sports event.

"It was a huge disappointment for me," he told The National's Amith Passela last year.

Now 45, he is again a hair's breadth from a global tournament, the most significant after the World Cup. And it seems hard to imagine that fate or the football gods or a cold and soggy pitch in Tashkent will deny him again.

He has worked too hard and waited too long, like his team and his nation, to be held back.

That dream that once seemed small, and then became bigger and bigger? Said Ali yesterday: "This is the moment to achieve our dream."