Amman’s undulating hills and the chaotic, labyrinthlike streets they lead onto provide a fascinating background for a date with destiny, nearly a decade in the making for the UAE’s cherished ‘Golden Generation’.
A day that promises nerve jangling excitement, tribal passion and pained impatience awaits as nations spanning the breadth of Asia learn whether they had been fated to make next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
The rolling geography of this Middle Eastern outpost provides a fitting backdrop to a tumultuous campaign for the Whites.
From the enthusiasm of third place at the 2015 Asian Cup which slowly ebbed away throughout a trying opening stage. To the troubling acceptance paternal coach Mahdi Ali could take them no further and the burst of enthusiasm delivered by last week’s authoritative 2-1 victory against footballing overlords Saudi Arabia, which means their neighbours remain, somehow, in the mix for a second ever appearance at the World Cup.
The odds are stacked against troops becoming increasing battle hardened under new man Edgardo Bauza. A walloping victory alone against revitalised Iraq – forced to play their home games at neutral venues because of civil war – at the dilapidated Amman International Stadium will not be enough to gate crash the hallowed top three in Group B.
Not unless this is allied with surprising, and substantial, losses for the Saudis or Australia – nations for whom a deeper relationship has been forged with the World Cup finals.
Yet it is the feeling that the UAE’s brush with entering the tournament is fleeting which makes Tuesday’s outcome ever more precious.
Sheer weight of numbers ensure a country which counts its indigenous population at approximately 1.4 million will struggle to consistently make global events. Talents have shone since the cherished crop of Adnan Al Talyani, Ali Thani and Fahad Khamees ran-out at Italia ’90. These include the ceaseless Subait Khater and gifted Ismail Matar, a returnee to the starting line-up in this international break.
— Matt Monaghan (@mattmonaghan360) September 4, 2017
There have been further highlights on home soil, when making the 1996 Asian Cup final and winning the Matar-inspired 2007 Gulf Cup. But when will another crop emerge which has produced the last two AFC Players of the Year in Ahmed Khalil and Omar Abdulrahman, plus the 2015 Asian Cup top scorer in Ali Mabkhout?
Never mind Khamis Esmail, Ismail Al Hammadi and the rest of a fine supporting cast.
This ominous question hangs over the impending action. Even when accounting for FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s expansionist plans in the next decade.
A final push must occur, no matter Khalil is the only big hitter who’ll take to the pitch because of suspensions and injuries.
Forget the allure of the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE. For a group which first emerged with victory in 2008’s AFC U-19 Championship, played in the London 2012 Olympics and claimed the 2013 Gulf Cup, this was always the true prize.
Ignore the unfavourable standings in Group B. Their true legacy will rest on this outcome.