How times have changed for the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
As the Whites joyously celebrated an incredible third place at January 2015’s Asian Cup which, seemingly, verified a long-held belief World Cup 2018 qualification was pre-destined for the ‘Golden Generation’, only expert soothsayers would have predicted a fractured side already sitting at home would instead discover the path to Russia.
Yet this is the scenario which has unfolded ahead of Tuesday night’s third-and-final round clash at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
It is a story of how diverging fortunes speak volumes about the current administration, organisation and health of the combatants’ respective national games.
One made a full commitment to startling change. The other chose inactivity and only a belated reaction when faced with the prospect that a rapid descent was following the ascent of a notable summit.
Victory for the Saudis will put them on the cusp of a return to the globe’s greatest sporting occasion for the first time since 2006. Victory for the UAE is likely to prove inconsequential to hopes which became forlorn many months ago.
A propensity to plumb new depths continued for the once proud Saudis during their travails Down Under. A bedraggled regional behemoth limped into the tournament with criminally-low expectations, respected Al Ahli coach Cosmin Olaroiu brought in on loan at the last minute – his return of one wins and two defeats during a group-stage exit no surprise to Asian aficionados.
The contrast to the buoyant UAE was damning. Under the paternal care of boss Mahdi Ali, a tiny nation in size and history was making the most of its limited resources.
Al Ain playmaker Omar Abdulrahman became a superstar, while Al Jazira frontman Ali Mabkhout came away with the Golden Boot following an enlivening run which included defeat to Australia in the semi-finals. But a fork in the road had been reached.
The man who led the Netherlands to defeat at the 2014 World Cup final, Bert van Marwijk, was given a sweeping mandate in August 2015 to revitalise all aspects of Saudi football. Plus, an almost-full shot at qualifying for Russia.
In contrast, an understandable error not to recognise a high-water mark had been reached by Ali was compounded by him limping on under two different regimes at the UAE Football Association until terminal double defeat to Japan and Australia this March.
Further ignominy came in the sinuous pursuit of a replacement which ended with Argentina’s Edgardo Bauza being provided with limited preparation time ahead of a predictable 1-1 draw on debut this June in Thailand.
Such a startling turnaround did not happen by chance. Rather, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation recognised the value of introspection after a near decade of tumult.
Lessons difficult to comprehend throughout Middle Eastern football were heeded.
For the UAE to avoid embarrassment on home soil at the 2019 edition, their populace must hope this example will be followed.