Yahya Al Ghassani: UAE buoyed by Bento, but hard work starts now on road to 2026 World Cup

National team begin qualification campaign for next global finals with Group H opener against Nepal in Dubai on Thursday

The UAE's Yahya Al Ghassani is looking forward to the 2026 World Cup qualifiers. Photo: UAE FA
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The UAE may have a much stronger chance statistically to finally reach a second World Cup but, for Yahya Al Ghassani, only greater focus and dedication will allow the national team to deliver on their long-held dream.

On Thursday, the UAE begin their bid to make the 2026 global finals, when they open Group H in the second round of qualification with a home tie against Nepal in Dubai.

The match, manager Paulo Bento's first competitive game in charge, forms part of a double-header across five days; next week, the UAE face Bahrain away before minds turn to January's rescheduled Asian Cup in Qatar.

Yet the 2026 World Cup, expanded to 48 teams and thus increasing the slots available to Asian countries from a guaranteed four to eight, offers a golden opportunity for the UAE to emulate the country’s celebrated side of 1990. Even if it still involves progressing from qualification's Round 2 and then Round 3.

The UAE's current crop narrowly missed out on the big prize last year, losing a tense play-off against Australia to wave goodbye to their chances of appearing at Qatar 2022.

But the enlarged World Cup in three years, played across the United States, Canada and Mexico, feels all the more attainable.

Not that Al Ghassani, aged 25 and now one of the UAE’s standouts, is taking anything for granted.

“To be honest, the focus within the camp is to take the games match-by-match,” he told The National. “Of course, the main focus and the main goal is to go to the World Cup in 2026, the first ever World Cup to be played in three countries.

“Especially because we wanted to be in Qatar, the first in the Arab world. But everything that happened in the past is in the past. Now we have to focus on the future, and I believe we have a real chance to go to the next World Cup.

"But still we have to work really hard. Everyone thinks it’s easier now; it’s not easier, it’s harder. Because every country will think they will have a chance, no matter if they’re a big team or smaller team, because there will be a lot of spots available.

“It’s a tricky situation. That’s why you have to be really careful.”

Al Ghassani, an Adnoc Pro League title winner last season with Shabab Al Ahli, was part of the squad that didn’t quite get there last time.

Although the UAE have since resolved to consign to memory that disappointment – with Paulo Bento appointed in July, Al Ghassani describes it a “new era” – the pain of coming so close for Qatar can be used for a fresh push.

“I don’t want to go through the same experience,” he said. “In your football career you have to experience that the least if you can. But it can be a motivation also. We don’t want to have that feeling again.

“So it's motivation that we can fight back, show the people the UAE has to be in a better place than we were, or we are right now. I think we are going in the right way.”

Bento's immediate impact has buttressed belief. The Portuguese, who led South Korea to last year's World Cup and then into its knockout stages, has guided the UAE to three wins from three friendlies. September's 4-1 victory, on debut, against Costa Rica was particularly encouraging.

“It’s a new era with the coach, but he's a good combination because he is really strict and he has a lot of experience,” Al Ghassani said. “He knows we have to build our attitude, the positive attitude, so we can move ahead.

“Everyone saw the difference in the first three games. He’s a good man.”

Maintaining the good feeling enveloping the national team is the objective. Al Ghassani, set to miss out on Thursday as an injury precaution, recognises the need to kick off the Road to 2026 campaign on the right note, against Nepal at Al Maktoum Stadium.

“The most important is to start very well,” he said. “We have a really tough game against Bahrain also, but the first focus has to be on Nepal.

“I know people try to make us think that we can win this game easy, but nothing is easy in qualification.”

Still, playing a principal part in his national team becoming the first UAE side in 36 years to qualify for a World Cup would realise an enduring ambition.

“There is no feeling that will equal the feeling of when you help your country to reach the big stages, especially the World Cup,” Al Ghassani said. “It’s really important for me; since I was a kid I was dreaming of taking the UAE to the biggest stages.

“If I can help in any way I will. So I will try, make sacrifices and do my best. The sacrifices I take for the UAE have to be more than for the club.

"Because the most important is we really want to make the UAE No 1, like they are in everything else. I will do my best to take them there, because this is the place they need to be.”

Updated: November 14, 2023, 5:14 PM