Against all expectation, the UAE beat Russia 4-1 on Sunday night to make history at the Beach Soccer World Cup in Paraguay.
The stunning victory marked not only the first time the Emirates have recorded a win against a European team on the global stage, but also the first time they have beaten a world champion.
If the Whites’ defeat on Friday to debutants Belarus was bordering on embarrassing, this was, strategically at least, sublime. In suffocating 40-degree heat, Emirati goalkeeper Mohammed Al Jasmi gave his side a lead inside 80 seconds and then shone in a brilliant rearguard.
A UAE defence that had been passive, reactive and, at times, possibly even scared in their opening match was barely recognisable against Russia - and not only because of the colour of their shirts. The Whites, dressed in all red, were committed and calculated, defending their lead with determination, throwing their bodies at every shot, diving into every challenge, and rolling around in the sand on every contact.
Time wasting in a game where the clock automatically stops when it is not in play might not seem like a particular clever strategy, but it sucked all rhythm out of Russia’s play and left them frustrated. The Russians had 23 hopeful shots in the opening 12 minutes, but only five reached the goal and none troubled the inspired Al Jasmi.
There was a sense in the stands, however, that a goal would come; eventually Mohamed Bashir’s rope-a-dope football would render his side without a hope of progressing. It arrived shortly after the midway point when Artur Paporotnyi’s shot from distance curled inside the far post. Yet rather than wilt, the UAE switched to possessional play, passing it around in defence and drawing fouls.
“When they equalised, we stayed calm,” said Bashir. “We made some tactical switches, told the players to keep the ball for longer, move slowly towards the opposition goal, and they responded.”
Shortly after Russia shook Al Jasmi’s left post, Ali Mohammed was awarded a tame free kick close to goal. He picked himself up and blasted it into the net to restore the lead. Nine minutes later, Hesham Muntaser won a penalty from a long ball and fired it past the Russian goalkeeper. The entire UAE bench leapt out of their seats in wild celebration.
"I am so proud. They fought like lions out there," Bader Hareb, the head of the UAE delegation told The National. "This is the real UAE. Not what we saw against Belarus. This here - fighting for every ball, following instructions, keeping possession, focus - this is how we know they can play."
Russia, back-to-back world champions in 2011 and 2013, simply did not have an answer. As they threw players forward in search of a lifeline, Waleed Beshr stole the ball in midfield, flicked it up and rifled it home for 4-1. Beshr could have even added a fifth late on, only to fire wide of an empty net.
A member of the Russian backroom staff, who preferred not to be identified, said the players are “in shock a little,” adding: “We can say the referee lost us the game, but we allowed him the opportunity.”
When the full-time whistle blew, defender Beshr fell to the ground exhausted, disbelieving of what he and his team had just achieved. Less than 48 hours after seeing his teammates in tears, here he was celebrating a historical win over the reigning European champions.
Even coach Bashir had played down expectations, speaking pre-match only of restoring pride rather than winning the game. “They are a European team,” he had said. “We must be realistic.”
Yet after a tactical masterclass, now the goalposts must move once more. Victory on Tuesday against Senegal, who beat Belarus 7-2 on Sunday night, will ensure progression to the quarter-finals for a first time in six attempts. For Bashir and his boys, a chance to make history a habit awaits.
Inspired by the UAE’s shock victory, Oman also registered their first win of the World Cup, beating Nigeria 6-5.
Omani coach Talib Al Thanawi said his side had watched the Emirates match and taken belief. “We have seen from the first day of this competition that everyone can lose the first game and next match recover,” he said.
“We treated this match like it was a final for us. We played with tension and made some mistakes, which is normal, but we were fighting for three points and I am very happy to get them.”