Emirati midfielder Ali Karim broke down in tears on Thursday night after the UAE were humbled 5-1 by debutants Belarus at the Beach Soccer World Cup in Paraguay.
The Whites had arrived at the Los Pynandi World Cup Stadium speaking of “making history” and qualifying for the knock-out stages for the first time in six attempts. Instead, with two-time world champions Russia up next, their hopes of progressing are slipping away like sand in an hourglass.
Belarus had secured their place in Asuncion by finishing third in European qualifying and represented, on paper at least, the easiest of the UAE’s three matches. Yet they had the lead inside three minutes and rarely looked troubled by an Emirati team lacking in inspiration and inventiveness. At the end of the first period, statistics showed Mohamed Bashir’s team had dominated possession, but failed to properly test Valery Makarevich in the Belarus goal.
When Makarevich doubled his side’s lead with a long drive from inside his own area, Bashir introduced Karim, who immediately made a difference, helping pressure the opposition and pull the defence out of position. Yet almost as soon as Ahmed Beshr had halved the deficit, Karim was inexplicably withdrawn and never re-entered the field. The UAE promptly capitulated, conceding three times in the final eight minutes.
"All I want to do is represent my country and help us win," an emotional Karim, who will turn 40 in April and is unlikely to get another chance at this level, told The National. "I am ready to play whenever the coach wants me, but I have to respect his decision."
The veteran’s voice quivered and eyes watered as he continued: “We have four or five players injured, killing themselves to play in this tournament, to make something … for our flag … for our country … to be happy. Tonight, we shied away against Belarus, a team playing for the first time in a World Cup. Our team is playing for a sixth time at a World Cup … I don’t know what happened. It’s hard to accept."
With his face buried in his team training top, he was eventually led back to the dressing room by the UAE communications officer.
Bader Hareb, head of the UAE delegation, said the FA had provided everything to ensure the UAE would be perfectly prepared in their bid to progress through a tough group. Bruno Malias, a four-time Beach Soccer World Cup winner with Brazil, was brought in as an assistant coach; the 12-man squad arrived in Paraguay a week early; and they trained for five days at the luxurious Lambaré Golf and Yacht Resort 20 kilometres out of town.
Quite why the Whites cowered on the big stage then must - and will - be investigated. Hareb made clear the fault fell at the feet of the players rather than coach Bashir. Belarus may be taller and more muscular, but they are also vastly less experienced at this level. The performance was, he said, unacceptable,
“The players did not play well,” Bader said, angrily. “They did not do what we wanted or what the coach asked them to do. Before the match we did everything for them; gave them everything they needed and they were 100 per cent focused. I do not know what happened on the field. They showed nothing that the coach had taught them. They were unrecognisable.”
The UAE face European champions Russia on Sunday knowing a win is now more necessary than ever if they are to avoid falling at the first hurdle for a sixth successive time. They will take confidence from the fact they beat the same opposition at the Intercontinental Cup in Dubai earlier this month.
Meanwhile, fellow Gulf side Oman also suffered heavy defeat in their opening match, falling 8-2 to reigning world champions Brazil. “We knew the result before the game started,” said goalkeeper Amjad Al Hamdani. “This is Brazil we are talking about. We are just happy to be here and gaining experience. We don’t have any ideas above our station and only look forward to the next match.”
Oman face Nigeria on Sunday.