Despite latest World Cup agony, UAE have tools - and time - to build towards better future

National team lost play-off on Tuesday, meaning 1990 remains the country's sole World Cup appearance

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Harib Abdallah departed in tears, barely consolable but betraying a player who had given his all when still it wasn’t enough.

Ali Mabkhout and Omar Abdulrahman, upon whom hopes have felt perennially pinned, slipped by the media post-match, muttering just enough to decline requests for reaction.

Caio Canedo was the only to stop on his way from the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium and the scene of the anguish, the forward having hauled his side level once on the night but regrettably not a second time. He reappeared showered and changed, yet still seemed spent - understandably.

The UAE had lost the penultimate match to make the next World Cup, slipping to a 2-1 defeat to Australia in Qatar on Tuesday, and the emotion was raw. It hurt, Canedo said. He likened the atmosphere in the dressing room to a funeral.

There was to be no march on to the decider against Peru, no final gargantuan push towards Qatar 2022. For that is what it surely would have taken. Ultimately, though, the UAE would not get the chance.

Despite the endeavour and the enterprise against Australia – the Emirati side could conceivably have got the win having initially carved the better chances – the country’s wait for a second World Cup appearance widened once more.

Thirty-two years extends to 36, for now at least. The stars of 1990, feted for that even-now unique feat, remain unmatched.

Predictably, the latest failure will be detailed and dissected. Immediately after the match in Al Rayyan, some supporters and analysts questioned Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s suitability as manager. But such is football.

Once the dust settles, the hope is fresh optimism will emerge. Even in microcosm, the Australia encounter hinted at a better future.

As mentioned, Abdallah was excellent, the game’s standout player. Aged 19, the young winger played with a fearlessness allied with freakish talent. While expectation should of course be tempered, he carries prodigious promise.

And this on his second competitive start for the UAE. In the other, the Group A climax in March that made possible the play-offs, Abdallah scored the winner against previously unbeaten South Korea.

Against Australia, at the heart of defence, were Mohammed Al Attas and Khalifa Al Hammadi. They are 24 and 23, respectively, each into just his third year with the national team. Ahead, the effervescent Abdallah Hamad is 20, Abdullah Ramadan 24.

Indeed, only four of the UAE’s first XI on Tuesday have crept beyond 30. Khalid Al Dhanhani, 25, was making his official debut, performing admirably at right-back. On the bench, Ali Saleh (22), Tahnoun Al Zaabi and Majed Rashid (23), Yahia Nader and Yahya Al Ghassani (24). All, you would imagine, will have roles to play going forward.

UAE v Australia player ratings

Meanwhile, Fabio De Lima, the naturalised attacker who brought much to the team before he was cut down by season-ending injury in January, will soon be available again.

The UAE have to rely no longer, or as heavily, on Mabkhout and Abdulrahman. The country’s all-time leading scorer, Mabkhout had little impact on Tuesday; Abdulrahman, diminished significantly to this point by persistent injury, was introduced with two minutes remaining.

Arruabarrena, remember, is three qualifiers into international management. He accepted the job in February. While an inexperienced coach at this level, the Argentine is undoubtedly a gifted manager, and the players have embraced his methods.

Patience, then, is required - in him and his young squad. This was always a campaign of transition, one entrusted originally to Bert van Marwijk, irrespective of the fact it endured all the way to the play-offs, to two games from a global finals.

Rodolfo Arruabarrena is only three matches into his spell as UAE manager and the players have already bought into his methods. AFP

Most of those involved on Tuesday will be better for the experience. The expectation is others will come through, too.

The UAE should build back with Arruabarrena, Abdallah and Co and look to what’s on the horizon. The Arabian Gulf Cup in January, the Asian Cup next summer. Arruabarrena’s contract runs through to then.

After Australia, Qatar 2022 has become Canada, Mexico and the United States 2026. An expanded World Cup, with near double the slots (8) given to Asian representatives.

Of course, the play-off pain will linger. It should. But, as Canedo highlighted in its wake, there is reason for optimism. Tuesday could yet prove an important juncture in finally realising the dream.

Updated: June 09, 2022, 1:18 PM
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