The first pages of a vital chapter in UAE football history are set to be written in the next three weeks.
– #Quiz360: WIN dinner for 2 at Media Rotana, Dubai
Succeed at the Asian Cup and the path to World Cup 2018 qualification appears wide open.
This journey has seemed preordained; a talented group of players maturing through the various age groups alongside coach Mahdi Ali up to the point where the nation can hope to compete with the globe’s finest for the first time since featuring at Italia ‘90.
But an underwhelming 2014 has seen the onus shifted back onto coach Ali to prove he is the man to continue this quest, the lack of a new contract providing extra personal importance for the impending tournament in Australia.
Such has been the rapid rate of development previously enjoyed under the 49-year-old former UAE midfielder’s tutelage – from his time with the Under-23s at the London 2012 Olympics to his successful integration with the seniors – this situation has previously existed unquestioned.
The highs of the Gulf Cup triumph in 2013 and the surge through Asian Cup qualification made it look unstoppable, the narrative of glory secure.
Cracks, however slight, started to emerge last year.
A step up in class of opponent since the end of the 2013-14 domestic season saw two friendly defeats to Armenia and
Uzbekistan, four dour draws against Norway, Lithuania, Paraguay and Australia, plus a solitary, barely-deserved triumph against Georgia.
Subsequently, a fitful Gulf Cup defence in November, which ended at the semi-final stage against hosts Saudi Arabia, has not helped. A new contract first stated as being close to finalised last summer, which would extend his stay beyond June 2015 until 2019, remains unsigned.
Further intrigue has been provided by the fact Ali spoke so confidently at last month’s squad announcement that a contract
extension would be confirmed prior to travelling Down Under.
This talk has proved hollow with UAE Football Association president Yousif Al Serkal last Sunday being forced to rally against the notion that doubts have crept into the governing body’s thoughts regarding their coach.
Reports, which have since been rejected, state the prospect of a new board being elected in 2016 is behind the reticence.
Why lumber them with a man they might not want? Judging by Al Serkal’s words, this scenario bares no relation to fact.
But what is clear is that the Whites are on a clearly-defined drive to raise standards ahead of the World Cup in 2018.
The rise to being the fifth-highest ranked Asian nation by FIFA is only the start, not the end, for a team and federation energised by a burning ambition to crown their massive improvement with a return to world football’s premier competition.
Friendly opponents are now largely drawn from Europe and South America, a glamour clash with Luis Suarez’s Uruguay to come in March.
When the first stage of the newly combined qualifiers for the World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup get under way in the summer, the UAE are expected to set the pace rather than chase.
These are not fanciful demands or pie-in-the-sky thoughts.
There is a genuine class and depth to Ali’s squad with talents such as Al Ain playmaker Omar Adulrahman and Al Jazira hot shot Ali Mabkhout among the finest on the continent.
Prior to Ali’s confirmation two years ago, Emiratis had last been regularly trusted with the permanent national manager’s post in the mid-1970s.
A poor Asian Cup campaign could see the return of the thought that big-name foreigners know best, an eminently possible
scenario given a tough Group C containing World Cup 2014 finalists Iraq, Gulf Cup holders Qatar and Bahrain.
Yet, to soar in spite of this draw and Ali looks immovable. Slump, and the insatiable desire for progress could leave him behind.
In some parts of Asia, this week dawns cold, dark and wintery but not in Australia where summer is in full swing. The New Year is just a week old but it’s time for the Asian Cup -16 countries, four billion people and one trophy. Sport 360 takes a look at what it all means, on and off the pitch for the world’s biggest continent.
MANY HOPEFULS IN AN OPEN TOURNAMENT
As Iraq demonstrated in 2007, the Asian Cup can be won by a team from outside the usual bunch of favourites and that is especially true this time. It’s as wide open as the South Korean and Japanese defences at the last World Cup. That 11 of the 16 hopefuls changed coaches in 2014 only adds to the unpredictability factor. The big boys are dealing with plenty of issues and that gives hope to others if they can find a lot of form and a little luck.
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Still, Japan are the favourites and rightly so – a triumph down under would take the team’s Asian Cup tally to five wins from the last seven tournaments. The defending champions have a team bursting with European experience at the top level: the Bundesliga, Serie A and the English Premier League. Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki, Yuto Nagatomo, Maya Yoshida are all players in action at the top level every week. They come to the Asian Cup fit and in form, something that could not be said last summer.
Another change is a new coach. Javier Aguirre has yet to impress at the helm and there is something of a shadow hanging over the Mexican as he is being investigated for match-fixing in Spain.
Australia have home advantage but added pressure. Just one win in the last ten has raised concerns over coach Ange Postecoglou’s attempts to regenerate what was an aging team but the Socceroos still rely on veteran Tim Cahill for goals. South Korea is another with a new boss, Uli Stielike. The Teaguk Warriors were terrible at the World Cup but recent performances have been better. Still, despite the presence of the European stars such as Son Heung-min, perhaps the best Asian player in 2014, and Ki Seung-yeung, this tournament may come a little too soon.
Iran make up the Brazilian quartet and have stuck with the same coach in Carlos Quieroz who, in turn has stuck with the same, or similar, starting eleven. This could be key. A well-drilled, well-organised Iran side will be hard to beat and they possess attackers to trouble defences down under, although fans and media will be less willing to accept the same cautious counter-attacking tactics against Asian opposition as they were against Argentina.
Fellow Group C hopefuls UAE and Qatar may be dark horses but have lightened in hue considerably over the past couple of years. The men from Doha are now Asia’s form team and ended an excellent 2014 by winning the Gulf Cup of Nations, beating Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. If you can do that then the Asian Cup is not an impossible dream. Khalfan Ibrahim could be one of the stars of the tournament.
And then there’s Omar Abdulrahman. The Emirati playmaker could, perhaps should, be a global star by this time next month. The 2012 Olympics caught the attention of Europe’s elite. The Asian Cup should open wallets that much more. UAE’s good form has stuttered a little in recent months but it is time to show what they can do on the big stage.
The same can be said of Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and perhaps even North Korea. All could go far if things go their way. And then there’s Palestine. This team is not going to win but there is going to be huge interest in how they perform playing at this level for the first time.
RESTORING REPUTATIONS AND FORGING NEW ONES
It is fitting that the New Year offers a quick chance to put the miseries of the old to bed. Many in Asian football will want to put 2014 out of their minds as quickly as possible. The reputation of the continent suffered due to the events at the World Cup. There’s no reason to go over it all again but suffice to say that a combined haul of three points does not reflect well and talk about the future of football lying in Asia has stopped, for a while at least.
A great Asian Cup will not convince all that the east is rising but will restore a little lustre. There are some big names gearing up for the big kick off. Son Heung-min is one of the most exciting young talents in Europe and there are already reports that Bayer Leverkusen’s young forward is ready to move to one of the English Premier League giants for over Dhs 100 million (£20m). Keisuke Honda is one of the stars of Serie A with AC Milan and the likes of Tim Cahill, Shinji Kagawa, Ashkan Dejagah and Ki Seung-yeung are always worth watching.
— Leblanc Marilou (@marilou590) January 6, 2015
It’s not just about the stars already established but a chance for new ones to be forged. By the end of January, there will be some, at present, unfamiliar names in the global conversation mix -and that’s the way it should be. There are over 350 players who have the chance to do something fantastic.
AUSTRALIA’S MOMENT IN THE ASIAN SPOTLIGHT
It is nine years since Australia became a member of the Asian Football Confederation. During that time, the nation has made quite an impact in a football sense. The Socceroos have represented the continent at two World Cups and reached the final of the 2011 Asian Cup. Just two months ago, Western Sydney Wanderers took the Asian Champions League title after that hard-fought final victory over Al Hilal. In addition, there are Aussie players in action in many different continental leagues.
Off the pitch though, it is a little different. There are still some misgivings about the country’s presence in the AFC, especially in the western reaches of the continent. This partly stems from the Socceroos taking World Cup spots, the arrogance of the national team when it first entered the confederation – an attitude exemplified at the 2007 Asian Cup – and the perception that this is simply not an Asian country. That feeling exists in Australia too and perhaps this tournament can help Australia – media, clubs, fans, general public – embrace the continent to the north and vice-versa. That would be a lasting legacy worth celebrating.
Palestine are set for their first outing at a major football finals when they compete in the Asian Cup this week. Journalist Samer Jaradat explains the significance of the national team's success against a backdrop of ongoing political struggle, and examines whether they can compete in Australia.
“AN ACHIEVEMENT BORN FROM SUFFERING”
It has become a well-known phrase in the Middle East. A phrase we are used to hearing whenever a hero labors to victory; a phrase that has been repeated by pundits, commentators, and passionate fans; a phrase that is used by newspapers and spread like wildfire in the world of football.
Suffering is synonymous with a nation that has so often been robbed of their dreams. Suffering is associated with a national team that dreams of a day of getting together without the need of occupational permits. Suffering resonates with a sport that is suffocating under injustice and bullets, with a football league that is divided between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, divided by fire and blood. Palestine’s football league is one that could end after its first round of fixtures should the occupational forces be in a bad mood; it is a league that needs decisions from the UN in order to take place.
The burden of suffering evaporates, however, when the achievements of the Palestinian national team are discussed. Booking a place at the Asian Cup finals was a truly momentous accomplishment. It is difficult to describe the long years of struggle in a few words, but in the world of words there is nothing to add, it is truly an achievement born from suffering.
STARS AVAILABLE FOR THE KNIGHTS
There is no doubt that the participation of Palestine in the Asian Cup represents one of the historic events down the road of the Palestinian cause in sports. “The Guerilla” (as the passionate fans like to call the team – “The Knights” is their official nickname) qualified for the continental tournament after clinching the AFC Challenge Cup last April with a 1-0 victory over Philippines in Male.
The current generation of the national team cannot be judged the best in the history of Palestinian football as the gruelling conditions that the Palestinian people live through make it difficult to judge a national football team historically. But the availability of some of the shining stars in Palestinian football certainly gives the impression that “The Guerilla” is a very good team.
Attacker Ashra Nu’man is unquestionably the most celebrated star in Palestinian football, especially in the Arab world, due to the fact he had successful stints with Jordanian club Nadia Al Faisaly and Saudi side Al Faisaly. The attacker’s predatory instinct was crucial as his side lifted the AFC Challenge Cup, with Noman crowned top scorer of the tournament, bagging a match-winning brace versus Afghanistan in the semi-finals before scoring the decisive goal in the final.
But the talents in the Palestinian football do not stop there. Defensive midfielder Murad Ismail and defender Abdul Lateef Al Bahdary are also players of some skill, while the national team also consists of some names who have impressed in Eastern Europe. Alexis Norambuena won the Polish second-tier title with Belchatow last season, Jaka Ihbeisheh has starred for Solvenian club Karka and young attacker Mahmoud Eid has impressed with Swedish side Nykopings.
HOW FAR CAN PALESTINE GO?
The beauty of football is that is played on grass and not paper and the ambitions of a nation that have suffered from the scourge of war may yet have the final words in the Asia Cup. It was so when Iraq shocked the world to lift the 2007 title and there should be no limit to Palestine’s ambition.
The mission is not easy, though. In fact, it looks dreadfully complicated as they face reigning continental champions Japan, in addition to prestigious Arab teams Iraq and Jordan. Sometimes the desire to accomplish something for a bleeding nation can be a major motivation for sportsmen to complete a miracle. That is exactly what the national team is depending on.
The end of 2014 saw the Palestinian people left stunned when Australia voted against the nation’s proposed statehood at a meeting of the UN.
Football has become a symbol of struggle and confirmation of the rights of the people, it is the game that challenged the arbitrary political decision with a national anthem that honors the suffering of sport in Palestine. Now, on Australian soil of all places, Palestine has the chance to have its brightest sporting day.