Aside, perhaps, from the return of oil to $100 a barrel, the United Arab Emirates would like nothing more than to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
The UAE played in the 1990 World Cup, a remarkable achievement at the time, given the country had not existed 20 years earlier.
But they have not been back, and people have noticed. If I learned one thing in six years in the UAE it is this: It is a country that competes in several sports but really cares only for soccer.
Which brings us to the current situation in the Asian Football Confederation, which is conducting qualifying for Russia 2018.
This was thought to be the UAE’s great chance to get back to the biggest single-sport event on the planet, but things are not going as well as they might, and the notion that the “golden generation” might fail … is depressing.
A 3-0 pasting by Saudi Arabia tonight in Jeddah.
That leaves the UAE fourth in Group B, and only the top two (Saudi and Australia, at the moment) go to Russia. The third-place team (currently Japan) goes to a playoff for a chance to go to Russia.
The Emiratis are not out of this thing, given they are two points from second place, but their margin for error is evaporating.
They had a big win at Japan, 2-1, to open this round of qualifying, but they followed that with a painful 1-0 home loss to Oz, the Tim Cahill goal coming in the 75th minute on a torrid September night that ought to have favored the UAE.
Then a 3-1 home victory over Thailand, which was creepy because 4-0 was the sort of result expected … but the Thais came very close to a 2-2 game in the final 15 minutes.
And then the trip over to the UAE’s “brothers” in Saudi, where the UAE has never won. Never. But they had hoped for a tie and a point.
They kept things scoreless until the 73rd minute, and then the Saudis broke through, and how.
And now a bit of panic is setting in, if not in the team (says the coach and several players), then at least among the team’s fans.
Up next is Iraq, not a bad side, and a bunch of hardened guys (see: 20th century Iraq history), who are coming off a 4-0 win over Thailand, and if they can beat the Emiratis next month, they are up to six points and a tie with the UAE in the standings.
The citizenry was so hopeful for this particular group of guys, many of whom have been together since they were teens, because they qualified for the London 2012 Olympics, as Under 23s, and won the 2013 Gulf Cup of Nations and went the whole of that year without losing a match.
And like most small countries, the UAE is not generally competitive on the global stage. What they need is that sublime combination of factors that sometimes grace a mid-level soccer power — a bunch of good players coming through the system together, at least one or two of them really good, and a competent coach.
This UAE team has playmaker Omar Abdulrahman, recently described by a Qatar club coach as the best player in Asia, and Ahmed Khalil, who shares the lead in scoring for this edition of Asia’s World Cup qualifying, with 14 goals. They have a fine coach in Mahdi Ali. The country dotes on them.
The spanking by Saudi would seem to indicate the former Big Boys of the Gulf might be back. Saudi qualified for four successive World Cups, from 1994 to 2006, then failed miserably twice … but now they lead the group.
The UAE will need something like 18 points to qualify for something (Russia 2018, or for the playoff), and they have six now … and 18 to play for.
Those matches include Japan (home), Australia (away) and Saudi (home), all of which the UAE could lose — and on recent form, would. To get to 18 points, though, they need 12 more, and even beating Iraq twice and Thailand again, that’s only nine.
This is the sort of grim arithmetic being done by various national teams who thought 2018 would be their year. Wales (tie to Georgia?), Scotland (3-0 loss at Slovakia?), Turkey (2-0 loss at Iceland?), etc.
The UAE is one of those who had circled 2018 on the national calendar. Hadn’t done anything in international soccer for 20-plus years, may not do anything for 20 more after this World Cup. The sense that this is their one shot, their golden generation in their prime …
It makes you wonder if the pressure of expectations is dragging them down.
I covered this team and this coach, and I was there when they played in London 2012. I am rooting for them. I feel more of an attachment to them than any team I covered during the Abu Dhabi days.
But I am just another nervous fan, at this moment, and if this team does not get things going … I will be unhappy. Not as unhappy as an Emirati, but not far behind.