It has been, by his own admission, an emotional few weeks for Lucas Neill.
News of Bruno Metsu’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent departure as boss of Al Wasl has rocked Middle Eastern football and put life into sharp perspective for the Australian captain.
Signed by Wasl in the summer after what he describes as a “strange” end to his one-year stay with Al Jazira, Neill was relishing the prospect of working under Metsu.
The 35-year-old had credited the Frenchman as being the key factor in his decision to swap Abu Dhabi for Dubai, shunning more lucrative offers from Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the process.
Having quickly immersed himself in his new surroundings – crediting team-mates for making it “really easy” to settle in – how then has the Wasl squad coped with Metsu’s enforced departure?
“After getting over the initial shock it kind of galvanized us a little bit,” said Neill in an exclusive interview with Sport360°. “It made all the boys want to go out and win the next game for him, which we did.
“When he came to see us the other day in training, it was pretty emotional. He tried to deliver a speech, which was very brave. We just wish him well, because one day life is perfect and the next day…
“It’s no one’s fault and, as he says, he is ‘trying to win his own game now’. The more we can win [the better]. We know he is watching us on the TV and he is with us, so we wish him well.”
The harsh reality of football, though, means there is very little time for sentiment – a fact not lost on Neill.
He remains steadfast in his belief that Wasl can mount a serious title challenge under Metsu’s successor, Gilles Morisseau, whom he describes as “just Bruno through a different face”.
“We have got the spirit and we have a good squad, it is just about putting it all together,” adds Neill. “The only [negative] thing we have done so far is put ourselves in winning positions and not come through with the three points.
“We just need to eliminate one or two of the mistakes and show a bit more concentration. These next two games – away to Al Ain and then Al Jazira at home – will be a real turning point for our season.”
Making the daily commute from the family home in Abu Dhabi so not to disrupt his children’s education is “not ideal”, Neill candidly admits, but it seems to have done little to diminish his enjoyment of football.
Jettisoned unceremoniously by Jazira in the summer, he exudes a feeling that he still has something left to prove, not only to his former employers, but to himself. As he says: “I am still learning and every day I go to training and try to push myself more than the previous day.
“I am not here for a holiday, I am taking it seriously. I am here to win.”
Neill, though, is unashamed to admit his decision to move to the UAE in the summer of 2011 was partially motivated by a desire for an easier life after 16 “exhausting” years in European football.
“I am not getting any younger and I needed a league that is still challenging but maybe not as demanding,” said Neill, echoing recent remarks made by his compatriot Mark Bresciano.
“When playing in Europe I was averaging 35-40 games a season and, with the internationals and the travel, it was just too much. It was too demanding to step up every week.
“Sometimes you would be running on empty when you came to the game. Over here I get to push myself as far as I need to during the week and then, as always, you get challenged at the weekend.”
‘Victim of our own success’
Refreshingly honest, Neill prickles at recent criticism of him and other Socceroos plying their trade in the Middle East and is irked by claims that the perceived sub-standard level of competition in the region has had a detrimental effect on the national team.
“The problem is we have now become victims of our own success,” said Neill, in the wake of ex-Australian international Robbie Slater’s recent disparaging remarks. “We pushed the bar up. Everybody has had a taste of the World Cup and now the expectation is we should always be in the World Cup.
“I think you have to experience it [UAE football] to realise how tough it is. The conditions play their part but I think the standard of football can be very good.”
Neill does, however, agree with Bresciano’s controversial view that young players just starting out in the game should be advised against moving to the Middle East.
“If you have ambitions to play in Europe I think it is hard to go from Australia, as an example, to the Middle East and then to Europe because there is an opinion that clubs won’t look this way for talent,” he explained.
“People don’t look here to try and find that pool of talent. And I really think any [young] footballer who has a dream should be trying to push himself to play in Europe.”
Changing a culture
Neill accepts that is not the case with many Emirati players, who he claims show very little desire to test themselves in the English Premier League, La Liga or Serie A.
“The mentality can be challenging because players here don’t have dreams and ambitions to go and play in European leagues,” said Neill, pointing to Omar Abdulrahman’s decision to spurn the advances of Manchester City as the perfect example.
“He is a beautiful player. There are two or three in every team, and if some of them realised just how blessed they are with talent they could really go on to bigger and better things if they wanted to. Some players jump out at you but for maybe only one or two games.
“Then you get players like Omar who are consistently good and who definitely have the talent to succeed in Europe.”
Despite an inherent reluctance to head for foreign climes, Neill admits that does not stop Emirati players from enquiring about what life is like at the highest level. “We used to talk a lot about it in Jazira,” he said. “About playing in front of big crowds every week, about stars, of managers and even now players are always asking things like ‘do you do this type of training in England?’.
“It’s good that they ask the questions and I suppose the little things I have picked up on during my time as a professional in Europe add a bit of value over here. Sometimes it can fall on deaf ears but other times people watch you, and other times they ask if they can join in and do that little bit extra – I guess that is why I am here.”
As he continues to impart his wisdom, it ought to come as no surprise that Neill has one eye on a career in management when he eventually decides to hangs up his boots. Whenever that may be. “I will definitely coach in some capacity. I would be silly not to do something with my career. Whether it is coaching kids or at a high level I don’t know,” he added.
For the time being, though, his focus remains on Wasl and Australia’s bid to qualify for a third successive World Cup finals in 2014. A possible swansong on home soil could then follow.
“There is an Asian Cup in Australia in Januray 2015,” he says with a wry smile. “That is not far off the World Cup in Brazil, so who knows?”
Favourite restaurant in the UAE: Hakkasan
If you weren’t a footballer what would you be? A chef
Favourite film: Dumb and Dumber
Idol growing up: Michael Jordan
Who did you support as a boy?: Liverpool
What car do you drive: Audi Q7
Which three people would you invite to a dinner party: Al Pacino, David Beckham and Jay-Z
Best player you played with and against: With – Carlos Tevez, Against – Lionel Messi
The UAE left it late to bag a win in their first game of the Samsung Intercontinental Beach Soccer tournament, grabbing a 3-2 win over Tahiti, but coach Marcelo Mendes was far from impressed by the performance of his players.
Youngster Adel Ranjbar lifted the ball over the Haiti ‘keeper with just 90 seconds left on the clock to secure a valuable win put hosts UAE level on points wit Russia, who sit at the top of GRoup A who thrashed the USA 9-1 earlier in the day.
“We know that Tahiti are a fighting team, they never give up, but I expected a better performance from my players,” Mendes told Sport360°.
“We didn’t play well, so I think today we won because of the heart, the system doesn’t work, we have two or three styles of play but the players didn’t (perform as I asked).
“The first game usually is like that, they are nervous, there are people and family here so I hope (today) they will improve and player better.”
The UAE went down 1-0 in the first minute after Naea Bennet headed past Humaid Albalooshi before Ali Karim brought the hosts level with four minutes left of the opening third.
Li Fung put Tahiti back in from the penalty spot as the pressure began to visibly mount on the hosts.
During the break before the final third, Mendes and his goalkeeper Albalooshi exchanged heated words, although the ruckus didn’t puncture the UAE’s spirit as Rami Abdullah drew the sides level with five minutes left, before setting up Adel to clinch the points in the dying minutes.
Mendes believes his side must improve before the next game against the US on Wednesday, if only to avoid a decisive game with reigning champions Russia in the group’s last game on Thursday.
“I wanted them to press and make more rotations but they didn’t do it,” explained Mendes. “They have tall strikers and Tahiti began to throw the ball up to them and cause us problems. My team is not taller than them.
“We have to improve, I don’t want to play Russia needing to win to qualify they are the strongest team in the tournament.”
As for Mendes’ run in with his goalkeeper, the coach was quick to criticise his number one although insisted it is just part of the game.
“We have a system and he has to play the ball to his players,” added the Brazilian coach, who has held the job since 2007. “He needs to play the ball to the striker. I told him in the break to play the balls to the side and open the defence but he continued to play the ball down the middle.
“He is the goalkeeper and the goalkeeper is 99 percent of the team in beach soccer. If he doesn’t do as he is told then it messes everything up. But off the pitch we are friends.”
Elsewhere, Brazil picked up a big win against Nigeria while the Swiss won 7-4 against Japan thanks to a four goal performance by MVP award holder Dejan Stankovic.
Bani Yas temporarily moved to the top of the Pro League table after they comfortably swatting aside winless Dibba Fujairah 2-0 on Monday night.
Bani Yas, who are still without injured star man Mohammad Zidan, put in a clinical first half performance to set up a comfortable final 45 minutes that saw them ease to their fourth win of the season.
Andre Senghor, as usual, was the man to fire Bani Yas into the lead, connecting superbly with a left wing cross to steer a precision header past the goalkeeper’s outstretched arm for his sixth of the season.
With the goal coming in the sixth minute, Bani Yas were able to control the flow of the game from there, sparking a flurry of chances including a finger tip stinger by Nick Carle.
Just 10 minutes after Senghor’s opener, Ahmed Ali took a solo run on the edge of the box before firing a effort into the top right hand corner to double the home side’s advantage.
While Bani Yas dominated possession, Dibba were not without their chances. Both Abdulraziq al Hussein and Ahmed Rashid Ali wasted good goal scoring opportunities with the former heading just inches wide and the latter stubbing an open, close range header straight into the ground and onto the crossbar.
On the stroke of half time, Luiz Fernando was unlucky as his rasping effort crashed off the post and spun across the goalline before squirting away from goal.
The second half was all about possession and containment for Bani Yas who only troubled the Dibba goal when Amer Abdulrahman’s long range curling went inches wide of the post.