Why AFC U-23 Championship is about more than UAE punching their ticket for Tokyo 2020

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Reverberations from the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship will be felt far beyond host Thailand’s borders and long after January 26’s final.

This statement holds particular resonance for the chastened UAE ahead of Friday’s opener versus advancing Vietnam. It must also echo in the minds of heralded Al Wasl winger Ali Saleh, emerging Al Wahda shot stopper Mohamed Al Shamsi and Co.

The continent’s brightest convene in the Far East for the next three weeks with one goal in mind – Tokyo 2020 Olympics qualification. This is the singular target that has consumed well-regarded Whites boss Maciej Skorza since his March 2018 arrival.

The Pole is in charge of a country that is acutely aware of the Games’ enduring worth. It is coming up to eight years since revered predecessor Mahdi Ali engineered an enlivening escape from the mire that, then, surrounded the first team and gave sight of a bold, bright future.

Entry to London 2012 set Ahmed Khalil and Omar Abdulrahman on the historic path to AFC Player of the Year glory, plus propel – the, curiously, little-used – Ali Mabkhout on a merciless journey to becoming his country’s greatest plunder of goals. It also inspired victory at the 2013 Gulf Cup and successive semi-final runs in the 2015 and 2019 Asian Cups.

A nation, again, expects and longs for a fresh ‘Golden Generation’ to be forged in Japan’s fields. The winter’s Gulf Cup engendered only embarrassment and a hasty exit from coach Bert van Marwijk, while World Cup 2022 advancement is being hindered by consecutive losses in Thailand and Vietnam.

An injection of new blood is a necessity if just a second-ever global berth is to be acquired during the current cycle. This is why this month’s festivities – where progression to the semi-finals will guarantee their ticket because of already qualified Japan’s presence – cannot be viewed as a mere formative experience.

Concrete and quantifiable progress must be attained. Thankfully for Skorza and the Emirati faithful, the signs are promising.

November’s friendly tournament in Dubai featured triumphs versus Syria, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, plus a 1-1 draw against Under-20 World Cup finalists South Korea. March’s character-building 1-1 draw against the Saudis in Riyadh saw top spot earned in their qualifying group for the continental tournament proper, while September 2018’s bronze at the Asian Games spoke volumes about this group’s boundless promise.

Al Shamsi’s penalty saves were the highlight of the Asian event, while Saleh now finds himself a senior UAE starter.

The talent well does not run dry with this pair.

The Al Jazira trio of Abdullah Ramadan, Mohammed Al Attas and Khalifa Al Hammadi, regularly, join Saleh in the UAE XI. So, too, Al Nasr forward Jassem Yaqoub.

Powerhouse midfielder Majed Surour is already an Arabian Gulf League champion at Sharjah, flamboyant Wahda wide man Yahya Al Ghassani boasts a glorious, if unharnessed, talent and measured Al Ain centre midfielder Yahia Nader is a certainty for Ivan Jovanovic’s UAE reset.

Significant hurdles await this group.

Opening opponent Vietnam boast one of the tournament’s finest players in attacking midfielder Nguyen Quang Hai, as do Jordan with accomplished APOEL winger Musa Al-Taamari. North Korea, as always, represent the great unknown.

Then take your pick from Uzbekistan, South Korea (minus Valencia’s Lee Kang-in), China or Iran for a quarter-final that is, essentially, an Olympic eliminator.

Come through this cauldron and the UAE will be, unquestionably, in possession of another ‘Golden Generation’.

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