Seeking a third manager since Bert van Marwijk’s departure last December, the UAE looked to a former incumbent. That is, they sought to employ Bert van Marwijk.
On Monday, the Football Association announced they had agreed upon a deal for the Dutchman to return, little more than a year after his shock release. Aged 68, he will succeed Jorge Luis Pinto once the contract, believed to stretch to two years, is finalised this week.
While Van Marwijk appeared a surprising candidate when news first emerged on Thursday that he was being considered, he feels once more a suitable choice.
The same logic that made sense upon his appointment in March last year applies now: Van Marwijk had already known Gulf football, the players and the practices, having served with distinction as Saudi Arabia manager from 2015 to 2017. Before his tenure there reached a similarly abrupt conclusion, he had guided the country to a first World Cup in 12 years.
Now, thanks to that nine-month stint in the Emirates last year, Van Marwijk and his staff possess a deeper understanding of UAE football, of the need to push ahead with regenerating an ageing and battle-weary squad, of what it would take to lift the national team to a second World Cup in their history. For that was, and remains, his primary remit.
Admittedly, there was criticism last year that Van Marwijk had placed too much emphasis on youth as the UAE embarked on qualification - in their opening Group G match, against Malaysia, Ali Saleh (19), Jassim Yaqoub (22), and Mohammad Al Attas (22) were handed competitive debuts, with the latter partnering 20-year-old Khalifa Al Hammadi in central defence. But it was clear this marked a fresh era, a separation from the recent past. Which was needed.
While signs of progress were evident, the UAE won two and lost two of their opening four qualifiers, despite performing better than Vietnam, when they almost survived 60 minutes in Hanoi with 10 men. Injury and fitness issues to star men, most notably Omar Abdulrahman and Ahmed Khalil, were a recurring theme.
Ultimately, the group-stage exit from a hastily arranged Gulf Cup of Nations prompted Van Marwijk's dismissal. In came Ivan Jovanovic, who lasted 106 days, followed by Pinto this June. The Colombian, always a difficult fit given his lack of Gulf-game knowledge and the considerable pinch of the pandemic, was gone within five months. Neither he nor Jovanovic took charge of a competitive match.
So the criterion for a new man was set: wisely, the FA coveted someone who knew the players and the league. A preliminary list included Zoran Mamic, Mahdi Ali, Rodolfo Arruabarrena and Henk ten Cate. In the end, they opted for Van Marwijk.
Now the hard work begins again, albeit from a stronger vantage point. Because of the pandemic, Van Marwijk finds the UAE in exactly the same position in the standings as when he left.
Despite the 376 days passed, the UAE remain fourth in Group G, five points behind leaders Vietnam. They retain the game in hand on their rivals.
The qualifiers, postponed and postponed again, resume in March, with a double-header at home to Malaysia and away to Indonesia - eminently winnable ties - before what promises to be a decisive five-day spell at home in June against Thailand and Vietnam.
Van Marwijk’s staff has apparently kept abreast of the Arabian Gulf League and the national talent, while they will embrace the enhanced options in attack supplied by the naturalization earlier this year of Sebastian Tagliabue, Fabio De Lima and Caio Canedo.
Meanwhile, and unlike previously, Van Marwijk is said to have agreed to spend the majority of his time based in the UAE, from where he will attend the Arabian Gulf League matches more often. A seemingly standard stipulation, Van Marwijk has long chosen to reside in the Netherlands even when employed outside it. It was one of the major contentions of his time with the UAE and, more prominently, Saudi.
Whatever opinion held of the decision to part company with Van Marwijk in the first place, a line should be drawn in the Arabian sand. The short period between now and the resumption of qualification demands it. Full focus is required. And, although the national-team committee has changed, the FA can be given credit for the courage to reverse that initial call, when Gulf football rarely finds time for concessions or corrections.
For now until June, Van Marwijk must be given the trust to lead the UAE through four must-win fixtures. The former manager, who always considered business unfinished, should return with renewed conviction. Patently, he has a point to prove in the UAE’s forge forward towards 2022.