United Arab Emirates
United Arab Emirates
Area: 82,800 km2
Population: 2.6 million
Capital: Abu Dhabi (population 363,432)
Languages: Arabic (official), Persian, English, Hindi, Urdu
Government: Federation with specified powers delegated to the UAE federal government and other powers reserved for member emirates
Independence: 2 December 1971 (from United Kingdom)
President: H. H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan
Major exports: Crude oil and gas
Football association: United Arab Emirates Football Association (UAE FA)
Affiliated to FIFA: 1972
President: Yousuf Al Serkal
General Secretary: Mohammed bin Dakhan
Nickname of full national team: The Al-Whites (Al Abyad)
Coach: Bruno Metsu (France)
Most capped player: Adhan Al Talyani (164 games)
Top scorer: Adnan Al Talyani (53 goals)
First international game: 1-0 v. Qatar (17 March 1972)
Record win: 12-o v. Brunei (14 April 2001)
Record defeat: 0-8 v. Brazil (12 Novemner 2005)
Looking for a place on the world map
When the United Arab Emirates (UAE) qualified for the 1990 FIFA World Cup TM in Italy, the future seemed very bright. What made the achievement even more impressive was that it came years before the emergence of the current crop of Asian giants that includes the likes of Saudi Arabia, Japan and China. However, 17 years down the line, the UAE is now struggling to make it global again.
Dubbed the “Golden Generation”, the UAE’s 1990 squad now seems like a shining spot in a distant history. Although graced by an abundance of talented players, the UAE has since failed even to come close to qualifying again. And with more and more countries fighting for the five FIFA World Cup TM places on offer to Asia, the task seems more daunting than ever. However, while renowned worldwide as a hub of business, international exhibitions, leisure, sporting events and shopping, the United Arab Emirates is also working hard to improve its football standards in order to turn the nation into a force to be reckoned with around the world.
The UAE is currently buzzing with football-related activities than aim to enhance the country’s reputation in the game. The nation is already famed around the world for hosting the annual Soccerex event, the world’s largest business-to-business football convention, and also as a destination of choice for top sides including Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Juventus as well as the England national team.
Not only that, but the UAE’s major airline, Emirates, is well-known name in the football world as a result of a string of endorsement and sponsorship deals including, perhaps most notably, a FIFA Partner contract and a lucrative agreement with English Premier League club Arsenal.
The UAE first made a name for itself by making it to the 1990 FIFA World Cup TM finals. Although qualifications came as a surprise to many, the fact indicate that it was the culmination of an elaborate plan that had been launched by the UAE Football Association back in 1984. What actually made this achievement even greater was the fact that UAE had only played its first international match 18 years earlier in 1972.
Battling against the football giants on the ultimate stage was a dream that became realty thanks to a group of talented players who achieved the country’s best ever results. Although the team scored only two goals and lost all three of its matches in the tournament itself, the players were treated like World Cup winners when they returned home.
The star of the show at the time was Adnan Al Talyani, a player known as much for his grace as for his talent. He became an emblem of the nation, and whenever a talented player makes the grade, he is invariably compared to Al Talyani. Sadly, the golden generation’s legacy has become a burden for those that have followed as they strive to repeat the 1990 squad’s exploits.
Nevertheless, the current UAE team appears good enough to bear the heavy load. The managing director of the UAE Football Association, Issa Saleh, says: “Our team is capable of competing for the honor of playing in the 2010 FIFA World Cup TM if the players are given the same amount of patience as our golden generation received from the fans, media and decision-makers.”
The French wizard
In a region that is infamous for sacking coaches, the UAE Football Association is standing steadfastly behind its decision to appoint Bruno Metsu as the man to lead the charge towards another taste of international glory.
Metsu shot to fame around the world when he led underdogs Senegal to the quarter-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea /Japan TM, beating reigning World Cup holders France along the way. His adventure on the Arabian Peninsula began soon afterwards when he led the UAE’s leading club, Al Ain, to AFC Champions league glory in 2003, before winning the Qatari league with Al Gharrafa in 2005. This was followed by a two-month stint at Saudi club Al Ittihad, before Metsu took over the reins of the UAE national team.
The flamboyant-looking coach started his UAE tenure with success as he inspired the national team to qualify for the 2007 AFC Asian Cup by overcoming Jordan in Amman. Metsu firmly believes that the right mentality can boost his team’s chances of winning. He got the proof last January, when the UAE team won the 18th Gulf Club in Abu Dhabi. The Frenchman stressed that his players’ toughened mentality was the main reason for their success in the prestigious event. “Self-belief is the key to success,” he says. “It makes players train more eagerly, improve immensely and listen intently to advice. Some matches are won solely by self-belief. It’s that magical.”
To realize the UAE’s dream, Metsu will depend largely on a group of talented, young players who are keen to etch their names into the nation’s history books.
Hopes of a nation
When the UAE hosted the FIFA World Youth Championship in 2003, few believed that the home nation would make it past the first round. The team proved the doubters wrong though by impressing the fans and reaching the quarter-finals. Not only that, but the team’s star player, Ismail Matar, won the player of the tournament award. But the young man really proved his worth during the 2007 Gulf Cup. Matar’s five wondrous strikes helped his team clinch the title and won him the golden boot for best striker along with the award for the tournament’s best player for good measure. Some even say that he single-handedly won the competition. This might not be far from the truth given that he scored his country’s winning goal in the 90’th minute of the do-or-die match against Kuwait in the first round as well as the winner in the semi-final against Saudi Arabia with the last touch of the match and the only goal of the final against Oman. On top of the silverware, Matar also won two prized racing camels for his impressive performances.
Matar has assumed the mantle as the savior of UAE football. As a result he once played for the U-20, Olympic and full national teams all within a month, yet the humble Matar sees this as one of his duties. A huge Ronaldinho fan, he is now dreaming of playing in the World Cup at senior level. “As long as things are stable and we follow the FA’s plans, we will be able to make it to the next World Cup,” he says. “For my part, I promise to give my utmost to ensure that the UAE will be there in South Africa in 2010.”
Helping him in his quest will be a group of gifted players that includes Ali Al Whabi, Sbeit Khater, Mohammad Omar, Saleem Khamis, Faisal Khalil, all of whom are already making a name for themselves at club level.
Club versus country
Recent years have seen immense success for UAE clubs at continental level, with the most notable achievement being the AFC Champions League triumph of the nation’s most famous club Al Ain. This has in turn placed further pressure on the national team. In some cases, fans have even accused players of being more committed when playing for their clubs. Quick to refute such claims, Saleh says: “Unlike with clubs, the national team has been suffering from inconsistency, with key players retiring and the coaching staff always moving. We are hoping to copy our clubs’ model in order to succeed.”
A further point to stress is the fact that most clubs are owned by Sheikhs, who always generously provide everything that is necessary for their clubs to succeed. On the national team front, the Sheikhs’ role primarily involves the financial and moral support that the FA and the team needed. “The UAE is a close-nit society,” notes Saleh, “and we always stand together, citizens and Sheikhs alike, in total support behind our team.”