Abdul Aziz Haikal, the experienced UAE and Shabab Al Ahli defender, works his way with the ball during a training session in their ongoing camp in Serbia. Image Credit: UAEFA

Dubai: UAE and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai defender Abdul Aziz Haikal is counting on a rewarding return as the national squad prepares for the joint qualifiers for the 2022 Fifa World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.

The squad of 28 players have been on the outskirts of Belgrade in Serbia since last Saturday under the watchful eyes of new Colombian coach, Jorge Luis Pinto, and his team of assistants.


A part of the ‘golden generation’ under former UAE coach Mehdi Ali, Haikal, who turns 30 next month, had been the mainstay of the national team till an injury kept him out of the team for some time as the UAE struggled during the early stages of qualifying.

“We all know we have to win the remaining four matches if we are to advance to the next stage of qualifying,” Haikal said in his quotes to the media.

“My job is to work hard and give it my best shot. I am here to try and improve myself for the sake of my team. We have a fantastic group of players who are committed to the ultimate goal of trying to ensure we don’t drop even a single point in the next four games. The mood here is very positive and we all think we can make it to the next stages of qualifying,” Haikal added.

The UAE campaign got off on a strong note with a 2-1 win against Malaysia on Haikal’s birthday on September 10 last year. ‘The Whites’ followed this up with a 5-0 mauling of Indonesia on October 10, but then caved in 1-2 against Thailand on October 15, before a rare second successive 0-1 defeat to Vietnam on November 14.

Going into their last four qualifying matches, the UAE currently lies in fourth place with six points in Group G that is being led by Vietnam with 11 points, followed by Malaysia (9), Thailand (8) and Indonesia yet to open their account.

UAE players doing endurance training at their camp in Serbia. Image Credit: UAEFA

The UAE have a mountain to climb as they need to win all four matches, if they are to advance to the third stage of qualifying. The UAE open against Malaysia on October 8 before travelling to Indonesia (October 13) and then their last two home matches against Thailand (November 12) and Vietnam (November 17).

“Most of our training during the lockdown period was done remotely. So the first task before all of us is to get back to normal and then we continue improving so that we are best prepared for our first match in October,” Haikal noted.

“A new coach means a new approach and we are all committed to giving off our best to the team. The challenge before all of us is to keep our focus and a clear mind while allowing the new coach to go about with his task. I am confident we will be in a much better position as a team by the time we head back to the UAE,” he added.

The UAE’s main training ground is situated at the Sports Centre of the Serbian Football Association which also includes multiple facilities, including an advanced gymnasium and a swimming pool, among other things.

The UAE team assembled for a brief familiarisation camp in Al Ain prior to their departure for the overseas camp. In Belgrade, the squad’s schedule has been divided into two or three sessions per day, with the mornings dedicated to physical fitness followed by theory sessions to impart Pinto’s philosophy of play.

Colombian coach Pinto, who was with Bogota-based club side Millonarios until his appointment with the UAE at the end of June, replaced Serbia’s Jovan Ivanovic, who was asked to part ways on mutual terms without even playing a single match. The 68-year-old’s primary task is to oversee the UAE’s Group G qualifying campaign for Qatar 2022.

Prior to travelling to the UAE, Pinto was coach of his native Colombia during their campaign for the 2010 Fifa World Cup and then as Costa Rica coach at the 2014 Fifa World Cup in Brazil.