Only one sport really matters among the citizens of the United Arab Emirates. And, actually, it is a subset of one sport.
The men’s national soccer team. Not necessarily the domestic soccer league those guys play in; Emirati fans are far more interested in club soccer in other countries, particularly in England and Spain.
No, the UAE national team is what quickens the pulses of the citizenry, and the national team is about as good this minute as it ever has been. Good enough that it has a real shot to play in the country’s second World Cup, in Russia two years hence, and first since 1990.
The UAE’s chances improved significantly when the guys they have been nurturing for nearly a decade went to Japan and opened the third round of Asia qualifying with a 2-1 victory on Thursday over one of the continent’s powers.
Up next? Australia in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.
If coach Mahdi Ali’s team can pull off another victory?
That would be six points after games against the countries previously expected to gain the two automatic berths to Russia from Group B of Asia qualifying.
After spending more than six years at The National newspaper, in Abu Dhabi, I am confident that something like 500,000 of the country’s 1 million Emiratis would try to get to Russia to see the UAE play.
That would be a very, very, very big deal.
The core of this UAE team has been together since they were making history at the Under 19 level, nearly a decade ago, with Mahdi Ali coaching them all along.
All you need to do is look at the side that beat Japan. Most of those guys have been playing on the same national teams since 2009, 2010.
Ahmed Khalil, the athletic forward who scored both goals in Japan. His colleague up top, Ali Mabkhout. The playmaker supreme, Omar Abdulrahman, one of the best players in Asia, and his central midfield colleague Amer Abdulrahman. And on and on.
These are the guys who qualified for London 2012 with a dramatic victory in Uzbekistan, becoming the first UAE soccer team to go to an Olympics — where they led Uruguay at Old Trafford, were tied with Team Great Britain midway through the second half at Wembley, and tied Senegal.
That would be the Japan with players making a lot of money in some of Europe’s big leagues — including Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City), Shinji Kagawa (Dortmund) and Makoto Hasebe Eintracht Frankfurt).
The UAE, meanwhile, doesn’t have even one player playing in Europe — and never has. Nor anyone playing outside the borders of their little country. That they can come together from their domestic league and play on an equal terms with Asia’s best, as well as Uruguay and Britain … it’s remarkable.
Now comes Australia.
To be sure, the road is a long one. After playing Oz, the UAE will still have eight group matches to play, with the final match almost exactly a year away.
But opening with victories over Japan and Australia would give them a little wiggle room against the rest of the group — Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Thailand.
The top two go straight to Russia. The third-place team has a chance to qualify, though it is a hard road — home and away versus the No. 3 team in Group A, then home and away with the No. 4 team out of Concacaf.
Finishing ahead of Japan or Australia … the straightforward way to Russia.
As awful as the heat will be, on an early-September night in Abu Dhabi, I still expect more than 15,000 kandura-clad fans to turn out at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium on Tuesday to see their young men play.
International soccer recognition is at stake, and the UAE takes this very seriously — from the sheikhs on down to kids.
The first World Cup since 1990? Oh, my goodness.