In my time in the UAE, the senior national soccer team has been, mostly, wretched.
The Emirati footballers completed a hapless campaign in the final round of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup just after I arrived in Abu Dhabi, in late 2009, but I heard about it, and the reverberations could still be felt. In eight matches, they had salvaged one draw, were outscored 17-6 and finished last in their five-team group.
Earlier that same year, the UAE was unable to get out of the group stage of the Gulf Cup — which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Yemen and the UAE. Not exactly murderer’s row of world football, aside from Saudi, back in the day.
And then things got worse.
In early 2011, at the quadrennial Asian Cup, the biggest competition on the continent, the UAE didn’t score a goal in three matches. Well, technically, the Emiratis scored two, but both were own goals by a defender named Walid Abbas, and one, late in a game with Iraq, cost them a 0-0 draw — a result the UAE aspired to, back then.
And then came Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, and the UAE didn’t even make it to the final round (still going on), finishing last in a group that included Lebanon and somehow losing in Beirut to a team that hadn’t won a significant game in something like five years. That Lebanon, which goes long stretches without football inside the country, is still playing for a World Cup berth, and the UAE is not, is a national embarrassment.
So, yeah, it has been a rough time for the national team.
Until tonight, when the Emiratis kicked around Qatar in their first match at the Gulf Cup in Bahrain.
Could this be a turning point?
Yes, actually, Yes, it could be.
The subplot here in the UAE since my arrival has been the successes of a particular age-group team as the senior side has struggled. Pretty much the same 10-15 guys, coming up together, placing well, winning things, even, as Under 19s, then as U20s and U23s.
These guys were the core of the Olympic team that got to London 2012 (the country’s first football berth in the Summer Games) and led Uruguay 1-0 late in the first half at Old Trafford and were tied 1-1 with Team Great Britain after an hour at Wembley. They lost each of those matches, but in neither were they embarrassed, and then they ended the campaign in a 1-1 draw with Senegal.
Same guys, five months later, go to the Gulf Cup in Bahrain — and the Gulf Cup is a very big deal in this region, fraternal Arab states, and all — and tonight just paddled Qatar 3-1. This would be the Qatar still in contention for a 2014 Brazil World Cup berth.
If they can get even one point from upcoming games with Bahrain and Oman, teams that looked inept while playing to a scoreless draw, the UAE will make the semi-finals, and then …
Background: In the history of the UAE, the country has one and only one international football trophy at the senior level, and that was at the 2007 Gulf Cup, when it was played in the UAE.
To win this competition would be huge. The best result for the senior side since that 2007 Gulf Cup.
And with this group of guys, they could. That was the gist of a comment piece I wrote for The National tonight. The changing of the guard, the New Men, the guys who came up together and expect success.
Having a successful national football team is the most important sports concept in most countries. The UAE is at least as soccer-crazed as most of the world, and might even rank in the 70th or 80th percentile of soccer madness on the planet.
The national team had become a drag, an embarrassment, and it was becoming hard to imagine that the UAE actually qualified for the World Cup, back in 1990. (It did. going to Italy.)
The UAE won’t be in competition for a World Cup appearance any earlier than 2018 (the old senior guys saw to that), but the idea that they could do something by then, with the team that fielded 11 guys 25 or younger tonight against Qatar … well, it could happen.
It gives hope. It spawns interest. It makes a nation feel better about it itself. All that.
A turning point, tonight. Yes, I believe it was.