On December the 2nd in 1971, a piece of land that was filled with vast deserts and areas of water was formed and it was named the United Arab Emirates. 43 years later, and the country had mesmerised people all around the world with beautiful skyscrapers, incredible sceneries and a growing footballing system.
It was only yesterday, when UAE faced Australia in the 2015 Asian Cup semi-final. Prior to this the team had only ever topped this run in 1996 – during the days of Zuhair Bakheet and Adnan Al Talyani – losing out to Saudi Arabia on penalties after a deadlock during normal time. It was heartbreaking for the Emiratis, as they lost in front of their home fans in Abu Dhabi at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium, currently called the Zayed Sports City stadium.
The contrast in the countries’ geographical identities is massive, with Australia boasting almost 8 million of land in square km, with the UAE only having 83,600 sq. km of land. Moreover, the population differs by a lot, also taking into consideration that only 16% of the UAE’s population are actually Emirati.
The geographical difference prevailed in a tense yet swift encounter, which saw Australia score two goals in the first fifteen minutes of the game to ensure them a place in their 2nd consecutive Asian Cup Final.
All eyes pointed towards a South Korea v Australia final, as they were both heavy favourites to win their games. The bookmakers were correct, as both Australia and South Korea cruised with two-goal wins, respectively, into the Finals of the Asian Cup; the UAE would have to battle it out with Iraq for a respective 3rd place finish.
This defeat, although, points towards the continuum of the second Golden Generation in the UAE. If Mahdi Ali stays on as coach, it will definitely be a plus to UAE’s hopes towards the 2018 World Cup. In my opinion, a foreign coach must be appointed along with the current staff in the UAE to aid in the experience and tactical department for the UAE to become the benchmark of Middle Eastern success. What, though, makes the UAE a more revolutionary product than Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and their other Middle Eastern compatriots?
Modern Day Philosophy
The UAE aren’t a team that sits back, they defend in numbers and rely on their attacking flair to win them games a la Kuwait, Oman and Iran, but they are a very possession minded team and probably lead the way in West Asia in keeping the ball. They have Amer and Omar Abdulrahman (no relation) – one is a deep lying playmaker and the other a roaming playmaker, respectively – and these two are the key in keeping the basis of the possession game that Mahdi Ali wishes to approach.
Note that, the quarter final against Japan was one of the UAE’s first games in where they ceased control of the game and allowed the opposition to control the situations of the game while sitting back in banks of four. A blistering start from the UAE (which is supported by their superb finishing, namely from Ali Mabkhout) allowed them to take the lead, and if it was not for fatigue and a brilliant piece of play from Gaku Shibasaki, UAE may have won the game in normal time.
Trust, Cohesion and Familiarity
Mahdi Ali has coached the UAE U-16, U-19, U-20 and Olympic sides before managing the senior national team while also being a one-club man to Al Ahli of Dubai, and managing them for a season too. Mahdi knows these players inside out as he has been in the Emirati game as a player since 1973 (youth) and as a manager since 2003.
The trust may not lead to ultimate success, but no manager can replicate Mahdi Ali’s bond with the UAE’s players. This philosophy is prominent with Mahdi Ali only in the national team-coaching scene, as many club managers have a resilient bond with their players; and that’s what makes Mahdi Ali’s management of the team significant.
Going into the 2018 World Cup Qualifying phase in less than a year, one should look at the team selections of the UAE teams in the future under Mahdi Ali. All of these teams will be based around the same players who have played together since 2010, and even before that. Add that too, a UAE team that is primarily based domestically. All these players play either with or against each other, so they do know each other inside out. They know what the manager wants and he knows what they can do.
Mahdi Ali had only encountered 5 losses with the UAE before the Asian Cup. That is a good feat considering he is not the most experienced at managing internationally, although all of these defeats came in friendlies or against Middle Eastern opposition.
Besides the loss against Saudi Arabia in the Gulf Cup – which saw the Emiratis come back from two goals down to equalise before losing it in the dying minutes – the UAE have not had any significant losses under Mahdi Ali.
Enter the Asian Cup, and the UAE played against the likes of Qatar, Japan, Australia and Iran. To think that they destroyed Qatar, held Japan and subsequently defeated them on penalties and narrowly lost to Iran in the dying seconds of the game, was a very significant achievement by an inexperienced squad.
The loss to Iran made them aware of the importance of maintaining the structure in the dying seconds of the game, while the game against Australia showed them the merits of a good start to a game. Mahdi Ali will also have months of time to analyse his wrongdoings and correct tactical ideas, which is where the benefits of a national team manager comes in.
One more reminder for the UAE and Mahdi Ali is to ALWAYS keep a man on the post. Australia and Iran very much exploited their set piece deficiencies, while Jaycee John of Bahrain also used his heading prowess to hurt the UAE.
The UAE are by far the best Middle Eastern team right now, and their loss at the Asian Cup will give them sufficient experience to take on the torch and light up the world of football in the coming years. The World Cup qualifiers need to change from the likes of Japan, Australia and South Korea to UAE, Qatar and Iraq for the Middle East to thrive. And the UAE are certainly taking the path in the right direction.