A few days ago I wrote about Josef Hickersberger, one of my favorite soccer coaches in the UAE, and how he had been rushed back to Abu Dhabi from retirement in Austria in an attempt to salvage the season by leading a struggling team to a victory in the President’s Cup semifinals.
And how did it turn out? (As if the headline is not a massive spoiler alert.)
Wahda is the team Hickersberger had returned to, and his one week here was not enough to fix a team that had been falling apart.
I watched most of the game, and Wahda was … how can I put this delicately … terrible.
Most of Wahda’s players have been together a year (or much more), but they looked as if they had met in the parking lot and then gone in to play one of the league’s two hottest teams. A week before, Shabab, based in Dubai, had won in Tashkent, against a pretty good Pakhtakor side, to qualify for the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League.
That’s a big deal here. In five years, only two UAE teams have survived the group stage — Al Jazira last year, and Shabab this year. (Shabab and Al Ahli will meet in the President’s Cup final on May 28, which is good, because they are the country’s two-best teams, at the moment.)
Shabab was coherent and cohesive and confident. They had to be confident, 10 minutes in, when Wahda’s guys were making passes to nowhere, and coughing up the ball without provocation.
Hickersberger’s choice seemed to be to play all the guys he knew and had won the league with, albeit three years ago. Several of them were badly out of shape. They were hardly running after a half hour. A couple of them were shadows of the players they once were.
Anyone who has watched even a little soccer knew Wahda was not going to get out of this. They weren’t good enough to have even a one-lucky-shot chance.
Their goalkeeper, lanky kid named Adel Al Hosani, made several pointblank saves in the first hour, but Shabab’s Azizbek Haydarov ripped in a shot from 30 yards that Al Hosani appeared not to see till late, and then it came on him like a bullet, and he barely got a hand on it before it went into the net.
Wahda’s Papa Waigo — love the guy’s name, but he’s been useless for three months — nearly scored at the other end, a few minutes later, heading a ball off the bar, but that was really the only scoring chance Wahda generated, and when Shabab scored again a few minutes later it was over, over and over.
Hickersberger, 65, knew how this was going to go early on. He was grimacing on the sideline early. More than once, as his attacking players played the ball into emptiness, the cameras cut to him, shaking his head. I think he was both pained and embarrassed.
At least it won’t be a long, drawn-out denouement. Wahda has three Pro League games left, and that’s it, and the Hickersberger returns to the glory of a Viennese spring and hopes a club calls him for next season.
Club management may well ask the old coach to play kids in these final, meaningless games, seeing as how they can’t qualify for any tournaments for next year, but also have no fears of relegation.
It was a fun story, for a week. One of our old favorites, back in town, hoping to work some magic. Trouble was, this Wahda team needed a miracle, and not even Jose Mourinho is capable of those.