Left: Zuhair Bakheet playing for the UAE in 1992; Right: Bakheet at the 2019 Asian Cup final draw in Dubai. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Dubai: Zuhair Bakheet, a member of the UAE team that finished runners-up at the last Asian Cup held on home soil in 1996, doubts the current side can do the same when the tournament returns to the Emirates for only the second time in January.

The UAE lost 4-2 on penalties to Saudi Arabia in Abu Dhabi 22 years ago to record their best finish in the continental showcase. They almost replicated that four years ago in Australia by finishing third under then coach Mahdi Ali. But now Bakheet — who also represented the UAE at the 1990 World Cup — fears standards have slipped.

“They’ve gone a little bit down after Mahdi,” said the former Al Wasl striker in a press conference at Gitex last week to discuss the fourth season of the du Football Champions youth development pathway, which kicks off on November 10.

“When we changed this coach they brought in two or three more,” he added of Ali’s replacement Edgardo Bauza leaving for Saudi Arabia after just four games, before being replaced by incumbent Alberto Zaccheroni, last October.

“This is a problem, also the players are becoming old, injured and are not in good condition, and we have in our hand just two months.”

He also questioned the standard of the UAE’s pre-Asian Cup friendly opponents compared to their rivals. “The Asian Cup has many strong teams, especially Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi, very strong teams making very strong friendly games but our team don’t play strong games and this is difficult for us.

“In 1996 we reached the final, I was with that team; but with this team, I hope they go in front, but to the final? I don’t want to say it’s difficult but there are many strong teams.

“I’m worried because if we want to reach the semis or the final, we have to play against strong teams as Saudi and Japan have done,” he added of Saudi recently losing 2-0 to Brazil and Japan beating Uruguay 4-3, while the UAE lost 2-0 to Venezuela.”

The Whites have only won one of their last eight matches, and have lost six of their total 14 games under Zaccheroni, including January’s Gulf Cup final on penalties to Oman. After last month’s 2-0 friendly defeat to Trinidad and Tobago, the UAE Football Association issued a statement defending the Italian, and although Bakheet admits he’s worried, he says the coach — who won the 2011 Asian Cup with Japan and led AC Milan to the Serie A title in 1999 — is not to blame.

“People are talking too much about Zaccheroni, but we are not really professional here to talk about Zaccheroni, he’s Italian, he’s a big professional, we cannot talk about Zaccheroni, we have to talk about our players and our league, this is the problem.

“In our league, they don’t [keep the ball in play] for 90 minutes, they play not more than 65-70 minutes, the rhythm is too slow. To beat Iran, South Korea, Japan or Saudi, you have to play fast and for 80-85 minutes, I’m worried about this national team.

“We need 10 Omar Abdul Rahmans to go outside,” he added of the star UAE midfielder’s move to Saudi’s Al Hilal. “We don’t really have professionals here, which is why this project with du will maybe help our country reach the next level.”

Asked if it was too late to replace Zaccheroni with Mahdi Ali, the only coach deemed capable of returning at such short notice, Bakheet replied: “There is no time for him to come back. He’s my friend, a good coach and a good man, he’s local [and] the players like him. But Zaccheroni is a big name, another mentality, he’s strong and they have to follow Zaccheroni to reach in front.”

Of his own Asian Cup recollections from 1996, he said: “It was a nice memory, especially to go to see the Shaikhs, and have all the Shaikhs come to see us.

“I don’t think players now care about pressure, they have a different mentality, but pressure was there in 1996 because we weren’t professional and the Shaikhs came to watch training, this is big pressure, but it let us go out in front because we were worried about the Shaikhs and wanting to make them happy. This is why we reached the final.”

One criticism of today’s players is that money and flash cars are all too readily available, killing their ambition, but Bakheet said nothing had changed.

“I, as a local, have been given a salary since I was 16. They had money a long time ago... Everybody is saying today’s players get Bentleys, but people are talking too much about these things. This is life. If you have Dh50 million what are you going to drive? A Datsun?”

The UAE take on India, Bahrain and Thailand in Group A of the Asian Cup from January 5 to February 1. For more information on the du Football Champions, visit www.dufc.ae