The game of football has no dearth of examples of the hosts often punching above their weight to exceed the expectations in international events — be it a South Korea making the semi-finals of 2002 Fifa World Cup or Russia, the worst-ranked among the 32 countries in fray, surprising all and sundry to make the quarters year. The UAE, albeit on a continental rather than global scale, did no less when they left reigning champions Australia stunned to make the semi-finals of the Asian Cup last Friday.
‘The Whites’, notwithstanding their current Fifa ranking of 79, have occasionally done themselves proud over the last decade — earning a qualification spot for London Olympics 2012, finishing runners-up in Asian Games and semi-finalists in the last edition of Asian Cup Down Under. However, the lack of a major Asian title has come in their way of being considered as one of the serious footballing powers of the continent who can rub shoulders with the likes of South Korea, Japan and Australia.
There is a big opportunity before them to change that perception but then to take one step at a time, the UAE need to have the measure of a compact Qatar side on Tuesday — a contest where the nerves will play a major role.
When the marquee event of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) was awarded to the UAE about four years back, there was never much room of doubt about their capability as hosts of such a major international football event. The CV was already a glittering one with two Youth World Cups, four editions of the World Club Cup to boast of — not to speak of the earlier edition of the Asian Cup hosted by the country in 1996 (where they finished as runners-up to Saudi Arabia).
However, two decades down the line, the Asian Cup has — to use the cliché — become bigger and better and rightfully branded as the ‘World Cup of Asia.’
The number of participating teams has doubled from 12 to 24, while the logistical challenge of shuttling the teams across six venues of the country would always test the readiness of the UAE as hosts.
More than three weeks down the line, the small nation has again come out with flying colours already — marking the event as another feather in the cap of the UAE as one of the world’s leading sporting hubs. So far, the India versus UAE Group A clash had taken the cake in terms of attendance with a 42,000-plus audience thronging the cavernous Zayed Sports City Stadium, but the statistics may change for the better in the semis on Tuesday or even the final this weekend — should the UAE make it there.
Either way, it will be no exaggeration to say that the UAE have already scored the brownie points — both off and on the field.