2019 Asian Cup an opportunity for the UAE to join world football's top table

Matt Jones 7/05/2018
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Ali Mabkhout (r) and Omar Abdulrahman (c) congratulate Ahmed Khalil after scoring against Japan.

Next year’s Asian Cup provides a dozing UAE with a perfect chance to rise from their slumber and remind the world of their undoubted but as yet unrealised talent.

The UAE have long been poised to pounce and make an impact on world football – it seems they’ve been ready ever since bursting into the public eye and impressing at the Olympic Games in London six years ago.

With mercurial, generational talents like Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout spearheading the nation’s greatest-ever team, many believed world domination was inevitable.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

However, hosting the largest-ever Asian Cup in eight months’ time provides an ample opportunity to finally unleash their promise.

They need only look back into the archives, and to the last and only previous time the country hosted the prestigious tournament, for inspiration.

Tomislav Ivic’s team made the 1996 final and were only denied a dream climax when cruelly defeated by Gulf rivals Saudi Arabia 4-2 in a penalty shootout.

What better way to both honour that memory and finally bestow true value upon the ‘Golden Generation’ tag than by lifting a maiden Asian Cup on home soil.

The UAE will host the 2019 Asian Cup, beginning on January 5 next year.

The UAE will host the 2019 Asian Cup, beginning January 5 next year.

They have the best part of a year to get their act together under Alberto Zaccheroni – who has form in the tournament, having led Japan to the 2011 title.

The iconic Italian, ironically, was in charge of the Samurai Blue when they were sliced down to size three years ago in Australia by the UAE. The 5-4 penalty shootout triumph in the 2015 Asian Cup by Mahdi Ali’s men in Sydney seemed like a seminal moment.

From 2012’s emergence onto the world stage, passage into the 2015 Asian Cup semi-finals showed clear progress was being made. They were defeated by 2-0 in the last four by hosts Australia – who would go on to lift their first Asian Cup – but that was irrelevant. Something special was stirring.

Instead of ending in a crescendo of celebration by reaching just a second-ever World Cup finals, however, a cacophony of disapproval led to Ali resigning in March 2017 after a 2-0 defeat to the Socceroos and amid a disappointing start to 2018 World Cup qualifying.

Replacement Edgardo Bauza’s brief reign ended embarrassingly when he defected to Saudi in September last year – although further farce was to follow when he was sacked just two months and five friendlies later.

Zaccheroni’s early tenure has hardly yielded cause for optimism. Four defeats have come from nine games, including losing the last three in a row.

Lethargic displays in December’s Gulf Cup campaign culminated in two missed Abdulrahman penalties – initially in normal time and then decisively in the ensuing shootout – as the UAE were sheepishly herded out by Oman in the final.

Alberto Zaccheroni replaced Edgardo Bauza as UAE coach in October.

Alberto Zaccheroni replaced Edgardo Bauza as UAE coach in October.

To compound matters, the star duo of ‘Amoory’ and Mabkhout were subsequently handed four-match domestic suspensions for leaving the Whites’ hotel in Kuwait City without permission the night before the January 5 final, while they were also omitted from Zaccheroni’s first squad after that for March friendlies with Slovakia and Gabon.

Yet, if only the right formula can be found there is something truly explosive within this UAE side. If Zaccheroni, or anyone else, can find a match to ignite that fire, a white hot future awaits the Whites.

Outsiders are keenly aware of it. Australia assistant Ante Milicic said at the Asian Cup draw in Dubai on Friday: “I look at their team and on paper there’s so much talent, particularly going forward. They’re defensively sound and I feel Zaccheroni will bring a good defensive structure to their game. There’s a lot of positives for them.”

Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil, both 26, and Mabkhout, 27, are approaching their prime with a hoard of youngsters – Rayan Yaslam, Khalfan Mubarak, Mohamed Al Akbari, Jassem Yaqoob, Ahmed Al Attas and Mohammed Al Attas – eagerly awaiting their chance to impress.

Among the seasoned troops are dependable figures like Ismail Ahmed, Mohanad Salem, Mohammed Ahmed, Habib Fardan, Majed Hassan, Khamis Esmail, Walid Abbas and Amer Abdulrahman.

Such a glittering cast must no longer settle for being the support act to Saudi, Australia, Japan or the rest of the Asian elite.

SIMILAR STORY AT CLUB LEVEL

The UAE’s malaise at international level is reflected in the club game.

As Japanese, South Korean, Chinese and even Australian teams have flourished, west Asia nations – particularly teams from the UAE – have floundered.

Teams from the Emirates have featured in two of the last three AFC Champions League finals – Al Ain and Al Ahli (now Shabab Al Ahli). The last four semi-finals have also housed these two sides.

Al Jazira, UAE champions a year ago, brushed aside ACL champions Urawa Reds on their way to a dream December FIFA Club World Cup semi-final with Real Madrid.

Generational talents: Ali Mabkhout and Omar Abdulrahman.

Generational talents: Ali Mabkhout and Omar Abdulrahman.

Yet, just like their national side, domestic teams falter at the most crucial juncture.

Both clubs and nation need to start marrying their undoubted style with substance. Even though they might not want to hear it, the UAE must look at rivals Saudi Arabia’s progress.

The Green Falcons are a mirror image of the Whites. But while they are soaring after securing a return to the world’s biggest footballing stage for the first time in 12 years and a fifth time in total, the UAE remain grounded, still preparing to launch only their second-ever assault on the global showpiece after their World Cup debut at Italia 90.

That simply must change. And if next year’s continental cup can be obtained, there’s every reason to believe the UAE can finally fly.

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City Football Club is setting the way for players to achieve their goals

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Champions: Under-14 side of City Football Club

City Football Club (CFC) only launched in October but in the short span of time, they have already shown why they are one of the top academies in the UAE.

Their trophy cabinet already has silverware with their Under-14 side winning the UAE FA Academy League while their U-16 and U-18 sides were runners-up in their respective age groups.

CFC have various age group teams ranging from U-7 to U-18s on different programmes and while winning games will clinch trophies, so is sticking to the club’s philosophy of ‘preparing players for the next level of football’.

It isn’t just about turning up for training and developing their skills on the field but what happens off the pitch.

For instance, the Under-14s have various conditioning sessions as well as yoga followed by high intensity work on their speed and agility during the week. By Thursday, they will play small matches between themselves ahead of their competitive games on Saturday.

It’s a programme that is similarly followed by professional clubs and an important step for the budding footballers at CFC.

“The stuff that we do off the field is the biggest selling point for us,” said Adam Burrows, one of six coaches at CFC with more than 15 years coaching experience between them.

“We have got great facilities and coaches and a lot of academies have that here. Where we manage to be so successful in this period of time is all round it. The programmes we have mean the players are tested regularly and have gym sessions from 14 and upwards.

“We film the games and give progress reports on their performances. They will be able to find out how many touches the player has had on the ball and how much distance they’ve covered. It tailors the coaches for the individual need of the player. I think it’s with things like these that we’ve seen such a big progress so far with our players in a short span of time.”

Although being based in Dubai allows them to play in various competitions in the Emirate, as part of the players’ development, teams also go on tour.

The U-14 side travelled to England in March just 24 hours after competing in a two-day tournament in Abu Dhabi. As well as playing Bolton, Bury and Fleetwood Academy sides, they also reached two finals in England including the Manchester Super Cup. They also won the four-day Dubai Super Cup.

For CFC, testing against players of different cultures is crucial to see where they stand in their all-round game.

“The competition is good here but we want to bridge the gap,” added Burrows. “In Europe, the game is a lot more intense so we’re trying to replicate the UK model so when we do go over there, they can be used to the familiarity of what to expect.

“One of the issues in Dubai are the lack of competitions. We think with the programme we have allows the players to play a lot of football all the time.”

With players aiming to play in the highest tier of professional football one day, CFC also have strong relationships with top universities and colleges in the US with a group of boys going to the States in the summer.

Manchester City left everyone in awe by how they played in the Premier League title-winning season and with football continuing to evolve with different styles of play, it is something that CFC coaches embraces.

“The best thing about Dubai is you have a wide number of nationalities in your team,” said Burrows. “It’s important that we play attractive football that they enjoy watching. We’re embracing what is happening on the outside world but also trying to implement ways as teams want to play exciting football.”

Speaking on their aim of playing in the Arabian Gulf League, Burrows added: “That’s the aim for us, everything that we do here is trying to set up a platform whether it’s professionally playing football or getting a scholarship in the States or playing here in a pro league, that’s what we’re trying to do and help the players. It’s not about making sure how good they are today and tomorrow, it’s about where they can be in the future.”

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Zoran Mamic to sign new Al Ain contract in 'coming days'

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Set to stay: Zoran Mamic

Head coach Zoran Mamic has confirmed he expects to sign a new contract with Al Ain ‘in the coming days’.

The ex-Croatia defender’s 18-month deal is set to expire this season after arriving for Saudi Arabian outfit Al Nassr in February 2017.

But the 46-year-old told Dubai Sports TV that he will put pen to paper on fresh terms to extend his stay at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

“I didn’t sign but I have agreed with the club and everything is fine,” he said. “I will sign the deal in the coming days. There are no complications; everything is done and I’m happy to stay here in Al Ain with my players and the great fans.”

Mamic was speaking after Al Ain’s President’s Cup triumph after Ismail Ahmed and Swedish hotshot Marcus Berg scored in the 2-1 win against Al Wasl on Thursday night.

It was the second time that Mamic and his team got their hands on a trophy this season after winning the Arabian Gulf League with a game to spare last month.

The Garden City club won’t have much time to soak in the celebrations as they take on Qatar’s league champions Al Duhail in the first leg of the AFC Champions League Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

But he lauded his players for their fantastic achievement this campaign.

“I’m proud of the my team, they have done a great job this season. Our season isn’t finished and we have two more games and it’s not going to be easy. After these two big successes, I hope the team can find more power to play two very good games and beat strong team in Al Duhail. We can celebrate for a while and the players deserve this. From tomorrow, we start our concentration for the Champions League match.”

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