RIYADH: The UAE’s World Cup 2026 cycle is officially underway after the appointment of ex-Portugal and South Korea head coach Paulo Bento on a three-year contract.
Bento, 54, was revealed on Sunday as the nation’s sixth permanent appointment – Bert van Marwijk was hired twice – since March 2019.
He has arrived from his record four-year spell at the Taegeuk Warriors with the mission of securing a second-ever qualification to the expanded global event and building on successive semi-final appearances when this winter’s delayed 2023 AFC Asian Cup gets underway in Qatar.
To achieve these sizeable aims, a significant number of challenges must be met. Here is a look at the bulging in-tray of Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s replacement:
A juggling act between old and new
Bento’s contrasting words as the UAE’s latest boss spoke about the difficulties inherent in the position.
Speaking at the UAE Football Association’s Al-Khawaneej headquarters on the outskirts of Dubai, he said: “We are looking forward to start working to try to reach our goals.
“We know it will be a long process where we would like to reach stability for the team, for the federation.
“But we want to be ambitious, of course; this is our goal. We know we have a competition in January (Asian Cup), then the World Cup in 2026.”
A long process could be taken to mean this will now gradually become the team of Al-Wasl forward Ali Saleh, Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club attacker Yahya Al-Ghassani, Sharjah midfielder Majid Rashid, and even Ittihad Kalba’s Sultan Adil.
But the UAE have no time to waste after several unsatisfactory years and Bento must be ambitious.
Can 81-goal record scorer Ali Mabkhout be coaxed into playing a major role for 2026? Will 32-year-old Caio Canedo be rejuvenated back at Al-Wasl? And is the door firmly shut on 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman if 2023-24 heralds another new dawn?
Recreate the process achieved with South Korea
Bento helped transform conceptions with South Korea.
Repetition is essential with a UAE heavy on talent, but lacking in consistency and stability.
A South Korea stereotyped for its indefatigability changed into a methodical, possession-heavy outfit with an emphasis on calibrated build-up play. This latter style fits well with what the technically proficient UAE have pursued, to mixed outcomes, under Bento’s plethora of recent predecessors.
Tottenham superstar Son Heung-min and Napoli’s Serie A-winning centre-back Kim Min-jae were headline acts under Bento, who recorded a solid 61.4 win percentage across 57 South Korea matches.
Yet, his introduction of measured now-Olympiacos midfielder Hwang In-beom into the fold ahead of January 2019’s quarter-final run at the Asian Cup – in the UAE – symbolises his methodology.
Al-Wasl forward Fabio De Lima, Shabab Al-Ahli starlet Harib Abdalla – who sank Bento’s South Korea in a previous meeting – and rapid Al-Jazira centre-back Khalifa Al-Hammadi are obvious headline UAE performers for 2026.
But the incumbent’s detailed doctrine in midfield points to further prominence for Al-Jazira’s Abdullah Ramadan, Al-Wahda’s Abdulla Hamad, and possibly Al-Nasr’s Hussain Mahdi.
“We must adapt to new plans and strategies. We will take into account the positive points and add our ideas to them. Our ambitions are great, and our goals are clear,” Bento added.
Results speak for themselves
South Korea’s qualification to World Cup 2022 under Bento was a breeze compared to the 2018 edition with Uli Stielike and Shin Tae-yong.
Last year’s eventual Round of 16 participants enjoyed more possession, accurate passes, crosses, shots, and shots on target in the group stage than in 2018, according to Forbes.
All encouraging signs for a head coach unfairly stigmatized by an unfulfilled four-year stint with a Portugal side that would go on to claim Euro 2016 after him.
Provide a sense of stability
A quick glance at the UAE’s recent run shows their narrow miss for World Cup 2022.
But a whirl through several managers and disconcerting group-stage elimination at January’s 25th Arabian Gulf Cup – their second in a row – point to appreciable underlying problems with FIFA’s 72nd-ranked nation.
Bento must move away from this maelstrom
The Whites went within one match of Qatar 2022, with an injury impacted side suffering a narrow 2-1 aggregate fourth-round defeat to an Australia who performed admirably at the tournament itself. This, however, provides insufficient context for the meandering path which led to this point.
World Cup 2010 finalist Van Marwijk’s attempt to rapidly dismantle a Golden Generation caused a deeply concerning second-round start and dismissal within nine months.
Successor Ivan Jovanovic departed without overseeing a match, partly because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Costa Rica’s World Cup 2014 quarter-finalist Jorge Luis Pinto suffered a similar fate after five months and three friendlies.
The returning Van Marwijk dragged the UAE into the third round but would be sacked again once automatic qualification was ruled out.
Former Al-Wasl and Shabab Al-Ahli supremo Arruabarrena engineered March 2022’s famous home win against Bento’s omnipotent South Korea to advance from that stage, before overseeing January’s Arabian Gulf Cup disaster in Iraq.
Hit the ground running
Acclimatization is of immediate concern. The ex-Sporting Lisbon, Cruzeiro, Olympiacos, and Chongqing Lifan tactician described an inaugural training camp from July 29 to Aug. 10 as, “a gathering for acquaintance, and it will not include a friendly match.”
Matches should follow this autumn in preparation for November’s opening World Cup 2026 qualifiers. The second-round draw will be held on July 27 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Attention then switches to the Asian Cup. The UAE have been placed in Group C alongside heavyweights Iran, Hong Kong, and Palestine; only a top-two finish guarantees advancement to the knockouts.
A strong start is a must. The last four years signify the UAE will not wait around.