Dubai: Back in March, the UAE’s Under-23 football team had a point to prove and they did superbly as Mahdi Ali’s side staged a remarkable fightback against Uzbekistan to secure a 3-2 win and book their place at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Prior to that win, intrepid UAE football fans were never huge followers of the national team. But that famous victory in Tashkent changed all that and suddenly an entire nation stood up as one to hail the “team of the future”.
The UAE Football Association, led by the highly influential Yousuf Yaqoob Al Sarkal, plotted a course for this young group, which had already shown their appetite for success with a silver medal at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China.
But qualifying for London 2012 was no mean feat, especially given that the UAE footballers had never reached an Olympic Games before.
The UAE started off their qualifying campaign with a couple of goalless draws against Australia and Uzbekistan followed by two successive wins against Iraq to get back on track. The most crucial result came when the UAE secured a 1-0 win over Australia before that dramatic 3-2 victory against Uzbekistan in Tashkent to seal the country’s historic first at an Olympic Games.
The success owed much to coach Ali, who is renowned for his meticulous planning.
Before the Olympics, Ali took his 22-member squad for their final leg of preparations with six friendly matches in Switzerland and Austria. The team then landed in Manchester for their opening match against Uruguay on July 26, a day before the London Olympics opening ceremony.
To their and Ali’s immense credit, nothing was left to chance. After all, this was the UAE’s moment in the sun to show what they were capable of on the biggest stage of all.
And how Ali’s boys responded.
Shrugging off early nerves, they settled well against Uruguay in their opener and took the lead through the crafty Esmail Mattar. But the former Olympic gold medallists drew level and then found a late winner to secure a fortunate win.
Next up for the brave Emiratis was another daunting prospect, tournament hosts Great Britain, and once again it was a fine display from the UAE that had the capacity 80,000 crowd at Wembley cheer on the team. However, at the end of the 90 minutes the hosts walked away with three points after a 3-1 win despite the UAE’s Rashed Eisa stunning the home crowd by equalising Manchester United and Wales legend Ryan Giggs’ opener.
With nothing to lose in their third and final group match at the Coventry City Stadium, the UAE once again held the upper hand for an early lead through a Mattar strike. But they could not sustain the momentum and conceded a late equaliser to end their campaign with just one point.
The UAE may not have made their mark by qualifying for the knockout stages of the competition, but they certainly showed that they are no pushovers against the top teams.
“For us the Olympics were a huge learning experience and I am convinced that this will benefit the team in the long run,” Ali said after the team’s return from London.
“It’s a dream come true not just for the country, but also for these young players. I hope we can all carry this confidence forward as we eye a second appearance at the World Cup.”