It has been more than three decades since Emirati commentator Adnan Hamad uttered the famous words “I can see the lights of Rome” as the UAE, led by national hero Adnan Al-Talyani, stunned the continent to qualify to the 1990 FIFA World Cup.
Following Thursday’s draw for the last round of the Asian Qualifiers, there is every reason to believe those glorious lights of the grand stage are closer than ever for the UAE, and not just geographically as we edge towards Qatar 2022, but also as the national team has made huge strides over the past year.
Elimination in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup semi-final on home soil might have been UAE’s third best performance in the competition after 1996 and 2015, but it was seen as a major disappointment considering the nature of the 4-0 defeat to Qatar, and it cost manager Alberto Zaccheroni his job.
Bert van Marwijk was appointed in the aftermath, but he too was gone 10 months later after another humiliating result, a 4-2 loss to Qatar in the 2019 Gulf Cup producing a group stage exit.
In the 12 ensuing months, the revolving door at UAE FA headquarters saw two managers come and go without playing a single competitive match due to the pandemic. Ivan Jovanovic lasted six months and zero games while his successor Jose Luis Pinto was deemed the wrong appointment after five months and three friendly matches, and it was back to Van Marwijk.
A shaky start to the qualifiers campaign saw doubts mount in the minds of many an Emirati football supporter as the Whites fell to unexpected away defeats against Thailand and Vietnam, finding themselves languishing in third place of their group by the time the road to Qatar was disrupted by the global pandemic.
But progress was being made as a new generation emerged in a side that blended youth and experience.
Then came June 2021, a summer of dreams for the UAE as the nation hosted the remainder of Group G matches. The weight of expectations was high, but Ali Mabkhout and team put in one exemplary performance after another to surpass the expectations of even the most optimistic UAE fan. In four matches, the Whites bagged 15 goals and conceded just three (including two late goals when they were leading Vietnam 3-0 in the final match) to take maximum points.
In Thursday’s draw the Whites were drawn in Group A alongside Iran, South Korea, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Two teams will advance directly to the FIFA World Cup next year while the third placed team will face its counterpart from Group B in a play-off.
Looking at the group, Iran and South Korea are the immediate favorites, both having made the previous World Cup and the Koreans having never missed out since 1986. However, Iran were beaten twice in the previous round, going down to Bahrain and Iraq. They needed a win in the reverse fixture against Iraq on the last day to seal progress to this round. South Korea remained undefeated but were held to draws by Lebanon and North Korea as their talisman Son Heung-min struggled for form, contributing just three goals, two of which came from the penalty spot.
Avoiding Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia, all of whom were at Russia 2018, was a huge boost, but the biggest cause for optimism comes from within. In Van Marwijk, the UAE has an experienced manager who led Saudi Arabia through the qualifiers last time out, bringing them back to the World Cup after a 12-year absence. Most notably, he led his native Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final, their first in 32 years.
Since his return to the helm, the 69-year-old has demonstrated his abilities, shoring up the defense by recalling the experienced Shahin Abdulrahman and Waleed Abbas, both captains at their respective clubs Sharjah and Shabab Al-Ahli. Their presence alongside the tenacious Ali Salmeen allowed full-backs Mahmoud Khamis and Bandar Al-Ahbabi to flourish, romping up and down the flanks.
In 24-year-old Abdullah Ramadan, Van Marwijk found a central midfielder who could both run miles in the middle of the park and deliver exquisite passes to feed his attacking teammates. The result was that the trio of Mabkhout, Fabio Lima and Caio Canedo were able to chip in with 11 of the country’s 15 goals since the restart of the qualifiers.
With a solid bench to fall into, including the likes of Sebastian Tagliabue, Majed Hassan and Khalil Ibrahim, and the potential availability of 2015 Asian Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman, who moves closer to returning from injury, the Whites can hope the lights of Doha are visible on the horizon.