Will Jorge Pinto’s South American revolution save the UAE’s World Cup chances?

Jorge Luis Pinto takes over squad that has not played competitive football since the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic forced the suspension of the 2019-20 Arabian Gulf League season. (FILE/AFP)
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Updated 23 July 2020

Will Jorge Pinto’s South American revolution save the UAE’s World Cup chances?

  • Progress will see the UAE reach the two-group final round
  • Pinto is no stranger to international football having managed his native Colombia

DUBAI: For the UAE Football Association, it’s the last throw of the dice as far as reaching the 2022 World Cup is concerned.

On Wednesday, new national team coach Jorge Luis Pinto, laid out a roadmap to the 2022 World Cup as he prepared to take charge of a training session with the Emirati squad for the first time ahead of reschedule Round 2 AFC qualifying matches against  Malaysia at home on Oct. 8; away to Indonesia on Oct. 13; and home matches against Thailand and Vietnam, on Nov. 12 and 17 respectively.

Progress will see the UAE reach the two-group final round. Failure, however, would at best be a major setback for Emirati football, at worst, a disaster.

Pinto is no stranger to international football having managed his native Colombia, Costa Rica and Honduras in the past. Remarkably, he is now the third manager to take charge of the UAE during this qualifying campaign, and as he was presented officially at the UAE FA headquarters in Al Khawaneej, Dubai, he spoke of his passion and enthusiasm for the job at hand.

“The UAE is advanced in so many different fields, and football should match this excellence,” the UAE FA quoted Pinto saying. “Coaching this team is a wonderful challenge, and nobody has more desire to take the Whites to the World Cup than I do.”

Ahead of the first training session in Al Ain, Pinto revealed that he had actually held talks with UAE FA before the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and insisted that he would get to grips with the culture of the team quickly.

“I have watched and analyzed a lot of matches involving Arab and Asian teams,” he said. “Football is an international language and not that complicated, and I am sure that we will take the UAE national team forward.”

But for the UAE, it’s a case of all change, not just in terms of the coach, but also in the identity of the squad. Pinto will be taking charge of a squad that has a distinctly South American flavor for the first time. 

Members of Mahdi Ali’s golden generation may remain in the shape of Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Khaseif, Walid Abbas, Ismail Ahamd, Ahmad Khalil and record top scorer Ali Mabkhout, among other newer, younger players. But this is the first UAE squad to include the newly nationalised trio of Argentine Sebastian Tagliabue, and the Brazilian duo Caio Canedo and Fabio Lima.

No doubt the three have excelled in the Arabian Gulf League over the last few years, marking themselves as arguably the most successful imports to ever play in the UAE’s top division.

The UAE for long had resisted the temptation to go down the route of nationalizing foreign players but the poor qualifying World Cup qualifying campaign so far has forced their hand. 

These players may not be a long-term solution.

Tagliabué would be 37 at the time of the next World Cup in Qatar. While Lima and Canedo will be 29 and 32 respectively. But a solution nonetheless was desperately needed to halt an alarming slump in form.

It’s a move that the UAE FA deems necessary after the team’s progress plateaued dramatically after the highpoint of the 2012 London Olympics, the Gulf Cup triumph in 2013 and the third-place finish at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.

After the stability and progress that Mahdi Ali had brought between 2012 and 2017, the last three years have seen a period of chopping and changing that have hindered the team’s development.

Former Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza replaced the Emirati coach but only lasted four months before being offered to the Saudi national team, at the time preparing for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, although he would leave that post too ahead of the tournament. 

Alberto Zaccheroni was next in line and managed to drag the UAE to the final of the 2017 Gulf Cup in Kuwait despite some inconsistent performances. However, in that fateful final on Jan. 5, 2018, Omar Abdulrahman missed a last-minute penalty that would have secured the title, and then another one in a shootout defeat. Zaccheroni survived until the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, held in the UAE, but a semi-final defeat to Qatar meant his time was up.

Hopes were high when Dutchman and former Saudi Arabia national team coach Bert van Marwijk replaced him, but a poor showing by the UAE at the Gulf Cup in Qatar last year saw them fail to progress from group stages, never mind have another assault on the title.

Van Marwick, who had led his country to the 2010 World Cup final, where they lost 1-0 to Spain, would eventually leave after two poor results left the UAE’s hopes of qualifying to the 2022 edition in genuine peril.

After wins against Malaysia and Indonesia had given the UAE a perfect start of six points, dismal defeats - 2-1 defeat in Thailand and 1-0 in Vietnam - saw van Marwijk the latest to walk.

The UAE now sit fourth in the group (five points behind leaders Vietnam), with one game in hand over the teams above them. While hope remained, another quick fix was needed. On Dec. 22, 2019, Serbian coach Ivan Jovanovic became the latest man tasked with rescuing the UAE national team’s plight, but the onset of the coronavirus crisis meant that when his contract was terminated in April he had not overseen a single competitive match for the Whites.

Pinto takes over squad that has not played competitive football since the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic forced the suspension of the 2019-20 Arabian Gulf League season. A lot of work lies ahead of the resumption of domestic and international football if he is not to suffer the fate of his predecessors.

He says he is ready to make his mark.

“I already have many observations about the UAE national team, and the most important thing is how the team will perform collectively,” Pinto said. “I want to leave my fingerprint on this team, and I will thrive to advance its tactical side.”

The clock is ticking.


The NBA MVP finalists: Antetokounmpo, James and Harden

Updated 09 August 2020

The NBA MVP finalists: Antetokounmpo, James and Harden

  • James would join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (a six-time winner), Michael Jordan and Bill Russell as the NBA’s only five-time MVPs
  • Antetokounmpo is bidding to become the 12th back-to-back winner of the award

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida: This season’s NBA MVP has won the award before.
A trio of past winners of the award — reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, four-time MVP LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers and 2017-18 winner James Harden of the Houston Rockets — were announced Saturday as the finalists for this season’s top NBA individual honor.
James would join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (a six-time winner), Michael Jordan and Bill Russell as the NBA’s only five-time MVPs. Antetokounmpo is bidding to become the 12th back-to-back winner of the award, and Harden is vying for his second MVP in three seasons.
“He’s an incredible teammate, plays unselfishly, does everything,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Antetokounmpo last month, stating his best player’s MVP case. “And I think that’s kind of what the MVP is, so we certainly feel like he’s very deserving and we’ll be excited to support him.”
Antetokounmpo is also a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year, while Utah’s Rudy Gobert is bidding to win that trophy for a third consecutive season.
The league announced the top three vote-getters in six individual categories. Voting has already taken place by a global panel of sportswriters and broadcasters.
The NBA has not set specific dates when the winners will be announced.
None of the games taking place at the NBA’s restart at Walt Disney World factored into the voting, because ballots were due before games began again July 30.
The league took the step of saying games played before the league suspended the season on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic could factor into award consideration, out of fairness to the eight teams that were not invited to the restart.
The other finalists for NBA honors:
Rookie of the Year — Ja Morant, Memphis; Kendrick Nunn, Miami; Zion Williamson, New Orleans.
Most Improved Player — Bam Adebayo, Miami; Luka Doncic, Dallas; Brandon Ingram, New Orleans.
Sixth Man — Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers; Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City; Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers.
Defensive Player of the Year — Antetokounmpo; Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers; Rudy Gobert, Utah.
Coach of the Year — Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee; Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City; Nick Nurse, Toronto.


GASOL VS. GRIZZLIES
Marc Gasol spent parts of 11 seasons in Memphis, going to three All-Star Games with a Grizzlies jersey on his back, earning two All-NBA selections there and a Defensive Player of the Year award as well.
And now, he’ll play against his former team for the first time.
The Grizzlies face Gasol and the Toronto Raptors on Sunday. It’ll be the first game between the clubs since Gasol was traded to Toronto in February 2019 — a move that helped the Raptors win last season’s NBA championship.
Gasol said facing Memphis would be emotional.
“I got there when I was 16 years old. It was my first time out of Spain,” said Gasol, who still owns his Memphis home. “I started high school there as a teenager and left as a father of two kids. ... My ties to the city and my roots go pretty deep and my love for the people there, what they mean and the franchise, it’s forever.”
Gasol helped Memphis make the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons including the 2013 run to the Western Conference finals. He is the Grizzlies’ all-time leader for minutes played, field goals made, free throws made and attempted, rebounds, blocks and triple-doubles and is second in points — 49 behind Mike Conley.
The Raptors were supposed to have played back-to-back games against Memphis this season, going there March 28 and then playing host to the Grizzlies March 30. Those games, of course, were called off because of the season suspension caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Obviously it’s a little bittersweet that we couldn’t play in the city of Memphis, to get that love and feel that Iove from the fans,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “But I’m sure he’ll be happy to see some familiar faces and a lot of the people that he spent a lot of time with over the years.”


WORKING WIZARDS
On Friday, the Washington Wizards were eliminated from playoff contention.
On Saturday, they practiced.
The Wizards knew they were playoff longshots even before coming to the NBA’s restart at Disney, especially since Bradley Beal didn’t make the trip because of injury and Davis Bertans opted not to play because of health concerns.
But these eight games — Washington is 0-5 at Disney with three games left — were considered learning opportunities for the team’s young players, and a chance to get some high-level work in before the offseason starts. And just because the playoff chances are now gone doesn’t mean Wizards coach Scott Brooks is changing his thinking on that front.
“It’s about getting better,” Brooks said. “You know, I love our group. We want to keep improving. And the record, I’m not happy with it but I’m happy with our effort after every game that we’ve been in.”
Brooks has told his team repeatedly at Disney that the losses go on his record, not theirs.
“You can’t waste the days, you have to keep working on each day and keep improving and it’s hard,” Brooks said. “It’s hard to go through, you know, five losses in a row. But in order to get where we need to get to, you’re going to have to deal with it. You’re going to have to be able to handle it. You’re going to have to be able to get better from it, and it also has to hurt, going through it. And that’s fine.”


BUCKS CLINCH
The road to the NBA championship will go through Milwaukee’s white uniforms.
The Bucks have secured the top overall seed in the NBA playoffs for the second consecutive year, the clincher coming when the Los Angeles Lakers lost to Indiana on Saturday.
Ordinarily, that would come with the right to host Game 1 and Game 7 of every series. This year, it just means that the Bucks will be called the home team in those games in each postseason round that they reach.