I still remember the excitement of watching the UAE football team play, as a child. I couldn’t wait to put on my fake Emirati kit, arrange my nibbles and steady the antenna outside the balcony of our second floor apartment in a three-storey building.
The national team of the 90’s till this day holds a special place in my heart. Not because there were a few talented individuals in the squad but the concept of teamwork and hard work to outdo each other was clearly defined. At least, across every other match that they played. Times were different then.
Since then it has been a roller coaster ride following the national team play in the environment that makes the modern day football. Big data, intense fitness regimen, hours in the weight room, and all that appealing stuff in between, which has delineated the game in the past decade or so.
Until September, 2016 that is.
Now, I do not want to break the hearts of all the UAE football team fanatics that are out there, but here goes: Zayed’s sons have achieved a lot in the past five years – have been able to rise again from the dormant state that Asia had seen it in for quite some time. A stint at the 2012 Olympics in London put the country and certain players like Amer Abdul Rahman and his namesake Omar under the spot light, there was the 2013 Gulf Cup title that they took home highlighting their superiority among Arab nations. The most significant moment was when they finished third in the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia – stronger Asian nations now realized the need to be aware of the tiny West Asian squad making some noise.
But as mentioned, it was nothing much of a noise with the team scraping by teams, by barely putting a string of passes together supported by their defensive anxiety and overall lack of conviction in winning balls. The players intent to put the first foot in towards genuine physical battles was lacking as well.
However, change comes with time and is easier for those who are open to the idea. The Emirati’s had a comfortable journey through the initial rounds of the Asian World Cup Qualifying having only lost to group leaders and neighbors Saudi Arabia. Moving into the final rounds of Asian qualifications, there were calls to relieve RTA Manager and Head Coach Mahdi Ali from his duties with the UAE football team. There were questions on his tenacity to push forward and maintain momentum against stronger teams.
Officials at the UAE FA felt otherwise and strived to keep the ship steady as it tackled rough waters. Their decision to keep Mahdi Ali at the realms had paid off as you all were aware on the scenes of the Emiratis win against a timid Japanese side, plastered on the fronts of local and international newspapers as well as on television screens across Asia. The UAE football team showed great character and work ethic of their predecessors as they equalized and went on to take the lead after their opponents looked like they would shift to cruise control at the 11th minute mark.
Their confidence had been on an all-time high having beaten a power house in the region. Nothing was unachievable now. The same mentality was called for against the Australians, a team which still invokes an overall Asian resentment, after the latter moved to the Asian zone from Oceania in 2005.
The Australians were coming to Abu Dhabi as a stronger of the two teams, which was reiterated in the pre-game conference by their Head Coach Ange Postecoglou. In a very humid evening last night, the Aussies relied on their legend – Tim Cahill to finish off the game with the lone goal of the game. While, many might say that the cinderella-esque story was short lived, a few things were consistent from the previous game in Tokyo.
Firstly, their ability to tactically stay in shape, regardless of possession or not, was a wonderful sight. There was conviction seen as they put together a string of short passes given the pressure from their opponents, pushed up to retrieve the ball deeper in the opponents half, offense connecting with the through passes and the work ethic in the wings. It all brought back memories.
And to differentiate from their predecessors, more so against the Aussies, this generation also managed to fight the physical battle against the most physical team in the continent. The Emirati’s did not shy away from getting on their opponents faces, going into tackles with clear intent and breaking the very essence of the game that characterizes the Aussies. That is an improvement regardless of their current situation.
The only concern, as I speak, is that the UAE football team should work towards sustaining the mentality that it currently holds and officials along with the Mahdi Ali should make sure that they convert that mentality into positive energy, after all it will not be easy to revive a squad after a valiant effort which was both physically and mentally draining.
Regardless, their recent performances has rejuvenated many of us and we will be backing them every time they step on to the pitch, as long as they build upon their path to be heard around Asia.