Qualification to the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup has only strengthened the UAE’s desire to become champions of Asia, according to jubilant skipper Walid Mohammad.
New head coach Mohamed Abbas’ men prevailed 2-1 on penalties following a rollercoaster 4-4 draw against Lebanon in Friday’s AFC Beach Soccer Championship’s semi-finals. This result secured a fifth participation in the global tournament – to be held in the Bahamas from April 27-May 7 – after the nation missed out in 2015 and teed up a final with regional rivals Iran on Saturday, as they chase a third continental crown.
The victory continued a remarkable transformation for the Whites, who finished second-bottom in November’s Beach Soccer Intercontinental Cup on home soil.
“I told my players: ‘we have a dream to go to the World Cup, but we have a target to be a champion’,” said the versatile 32-year-old captain. “We came here to get back to being the champion of Asia, not just to make the World Cup.
“We had a difficult group, Japan are one of the world’s strongest teams. In the semis versus Lebanon, we again showed our personality.”
The UAE had topped Group C in Malaysia thanks to a fine 5-4 win against ninth-ranked Japan on Wednesday. Their reward was a clash against Lebanon, in which victory was required to guarantee one of three World Cup spots.
Goals from Ahmed Beshr, Haitham Mohamed and Ali Mohammad gave them a 3-1 lead in the last-four tie, only for Mohamad Merhi‘s brace to help the Cedars go 4-3 ahead. Ali Mohammad then responded with a bouncing penalty to secure extra-time.
Haitham Fattal and Moustafa Al Zein both faltered for Lebanon in the subsequent shootout, while Mohamed and Hasham Muntaser registered to help the UAE to a memorable success.
“It was a tough game for us,” said Walid Mohammad, who made his international debut in 2011.
“I trusted my players and we had no other option but to win. This was a dream of a country, not just a dream of the players.”
Ex-UAE star Abbas took the reins in the aftermath of the Dubai debacle, as Guga’s two-year spell was brought to an end. Walid Mohammad praised the decision to pick an Emirati replacement.
He said: “When somebody was a player and then becomes coach, it makes a big difference. A new coach would need to know the details, but we didn’t have time – it was a great decision to keep a local coach.”
Iran beat Japan 8-6 in the other semi. Their fifth-placed world ranking is 14 higher than the UAE’s.