My two cents on the KSA vs. UAE game that ended in a crushing 3-0 defeat for ‘Al Abyad’ (The Whites). The Emiratis held on for about 70 minutes before falling apart. Once the deadlock was broken, there was no way back for ‘Wlad Zayed’ (Sons of HH Sheikh Zayed, the late UAE president)
The outcome of the game was pretty disappointing for me, but hey, at least they lost to another Arab nation. Despite all the criticism he gets, I hope the Emirati Football Association shows some patience and gives Mahdi Ali until the end of the qualifying campaign before making a decision on his future. While I am not a tactical expert, and I do not follow the UAE Arabian Gulf League (AGL) closely, however, I am an advocate of giving managers and systems time.
It will be unfair to sack him now IMHO. He was a major factor in the progress of this generation of talented young players. This team since that 1990s generation of Al Talyani and co., the only team to reach the World Cup finals (In Italy 1990).
It is sometimes forgotten that the UAE team went through a phase of mediocrity after 1996, where the national team struggled to make any significant progress. The national team actually failed to even qualify to the 2000 Asian Cup in Lebanon after coming agonisingly close to winning the 1996 edition in front of their own fans, and incidentally, to the Saudis of all people on penalties.
The team’s fortunes were not any better in 2002, as they came last in the Gulf Cup, a competition that to this day is not recognized by FIFA, but is highly prestigious in the GCC region. The team’s only achievement during those dark years was winning the 2007 edition of the abovementioned Gulf Cup, albeit on home soil.
These years in the wilderness were characterized by low attendances (more on that below) and the hiring and sacking of foreign managers on a whim, with seemingly no long-term planning and strategy in place. This all changed thanks to the currently under-fire Mahdi Ali.
These disappointing performances led to general apathy about the national team, in one instance, there were more than double ‘away’ fans attending a Lebanon vs. UAE match in Abu Dhabi, thanks in part to the significant number of Lebanese expats residing in the UAE and the fact that for once, the Lebanese national team was punching above its weight and needed a result to make it out of the qualifiers that year (They ‘Lbeos’ lost, but the other result in the group went their way so they ended up going through anyway).
Mahdi Ali worked with many of the current sernior players during their youth team days, which culimnated in the country reaching the 2012 London Olympics and performing admirably against the likes of ‘Team GB’ and Uruguay. The UAE FA decided to hand over the senior team’s job to Mahdi, who led the team to its first Gulf Cup win away from home in a memorable tournament in Bahrain. The interest in the team was on the rise, the team finally had an identity and even some star appeal, thansk to Yemeni-born Omar Abdulrahman, more known as ‘3amoori’. The team was winning again and started playing more attractive football. The fans were not only filling the stands, but they were literally filling planes for some of the away games (noticeably for the Gulf Cup matches in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia).
Looking at the heated online discussions after the game, there has been plenty of criticism about Mahdi’s squad selections, tactics and starting eleven, however, there is still plenty of time in this for him and his young team. If I may compare this situation to a more developed footballing nation, I’d compare it to the French team of 2014-2016. The team entered the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with little expectations, and they had performed admirably well. The target was for the team to reach its zenith on home soil for the Euros. As things went, the team almost did it, but failed to break a resilient Portugal side on a moth-filled final in Paris. My point is, patience is a virtue. The UAE can go places with Mahdi.
The team still has a chance to make amends and challenge for one of the two automatic qualifying spots, and as we have seen so far, the group is quite open. Japan and Saudi Arabia still have to play in Abu Dhabi. Overcoming the Aussies in their own backyard will be unrealistic, thus, the matches against Iraq and Thailand will be crucial if the team is to have any genuine chance at featuring in Russia in 20 or so months.