End of an era as former UAE golden boy Ismail Matar retires after final game for Al Wahda

All change in Emirati football as former national team stars Mabkhout, Abdulrahman and Khalil search for new clubs

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - August 22nd, 2017: Ismail Matar of the UAE football team trains ahead of their game against Saudi Arabia. Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017 at Al Khawaneej, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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The passing of another football season always brings with it a certain finality, but when it comes to the 2023/24 Adnoc Pro League, it feels doubly definitive.

On Sunday, Ismail Matar was there for his final match for Al Wahda, the club he has – rather incredibly – represented for a quarter of a century. At 41, one of the finest footballers the UAE has produced consigned his playing career to the past.

Matar’s retirement prompted a flood of homages from Wahda – his boyhood club – Sunday’s rivals Sharjah, and on social media. As well it should.

Matar is a three-time UAE league champion and has captured every other domestic trophy as well, some more than once. For the national team, he first rose to prominence as player of the tournament at the 2003 Fifa World Youth Championship (more recently known as the Fifa U20 World Cup), on home soil.

Having scored a last-minute winner in the last 16 against Australia, Matar was selected for the award ahead of the likes of Andres Iniesta and Javier Mascherano. It marked a huge moment not only for the player, but the country.

His penchant to play protagonist continued through to the 2007 Arabian Gulf Cup; Matar scored the decisive goal in the final, the UAE becoming regional champions for the first time. Six years later, albeit in a relatively reduced role, he was part of the team who again sealed the trophy.

In between, Matar led the UAE’s bright band of tyros at the country’s memorable inaugural appearance at an Olympics, notching first in their opening match at the 2012 Games against Uruguay at Old Trafford. He would do the same in the last of their three games, against Senegal in Coventry.

Perhaps even Matar would not have envisioned he'd be concluding his career some 12 years later, last month’s League Cup success in hand, the outpouring of tributes and tears quickly following. For sure, his was a football life lived well.

If Matar has been long viewed the doyen of this specific era of UAE football, the generation that he bridged included a trio of players developed to take the national team further.

For a time from the middle of the last decade, Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil were considered the UAE’s three leading lights, the headline acts in a team that was fast going places.

There was the Gulf Cup triumph in 2013, where Abdulrahman, then only 21, suggested emphatically that a prosperous career lay ahead. His opening goal in the final against Iraq, a mazy dribble and finish, simply reinforced that.

Of the UAE’s 10 goals in the Bahrain tournament, Abdulrahman, Mabkhout and Khalil chipped in with seven. The team’s future seemed set.

Again, at the 2015 Asian Cup, the attacking triumvirate were integral to the UAE’s historic run to bronze. Staged in Australia, it constituted their best result on foreign soil in the continent’s principal event.

They even defeated record-winners Japan in the quarter-finals; in the shoot-out in Sydney, Abdulrahman did the Panenka. With five goals in all, Mabkhout took the tournament's Golden Boot.

Khalil would that year enter the record books as the first Emirati to be named Asian Player of the Year. Twelve months later, Abdulrahman followed suit.

From there, though, the promise never felt fulfilled. Yes, Mabkhout went on to become the UAE’s all-time record goalscorer, later matching the feat in the domestic top flight.

Representing Al Jazira as boy and man, now 33, it was anticipated his playing days would come to a close at the Abu Dhabi side. But, on Saturday and much to everyone’s surprise, Jazira announced in a statement on social media that the 2023/24 finale against Al Ain would represent Mabkhout’s last match for the club.

He departs having scored 218 goals in 298 league appearances, with a collection of trophies in the bag.

So, remarkably, Mabkhout, Abdulrahman and Khalil are now without a club. Abdulrahman was released in February by Al Wasl; last week, Al Bataeh dismissed reports they had agreed to keep Khalil beyond the season’s final match.

Abdulrahman is 33, Khalil one year younger. Both ravaged by injury and fitness issues, the former made only 19 league appearances since 2020, the latter 28.

Thus, as the UAE get set in the next week to sign off on a successful second round of qualification for the 2026 World Cup – they face Nepal away on Thursday and Bahrain at home on June 11 – they look now to a fresh group to deliver what Matar, Mabkhout, Abdulrahman and Khalil could not: the country’s second participation at a global finals.

Undoubtedly, Matar will never be forgotten. Quite conceivably, the other three will find new employers. But the sense is that a chapter, that promised so much and delivered some way and more too, has closed.

Updated: June 05, 2024, 2:48 AM