UAE captain Ismail Matar says the hosts must grasp the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of playing an Asian Cup on home soil, after they booked a place in the semi-finals.
The national team, staging the tournament for only the second time in the country's history, advanced to the last four on Friday, courtesy of a hugely spirited 1-0 victory against defending champions Australia in Al Ain. They now face Qatar in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.
Friday’s win maintains the UAE’s chances of at least matching their celebrated 1996 side, who finished runners-up when the Asian Cup was last played in the Emirates. That remains the country's best performance to date in the continental competition, although the 1996 event featured only 11 teams. This year’s tournament has been expanded to 24.
Matar, a veteran forward who understands this could be his last major finals for the UAE, has urged his side to make the most of Asia’s marquee tournament taking place at home.
“For us, we’re looking to bring something we don’t have before, for our country,” the 35-year-old said. “We want our fans, our Highness to be proud of us. And this is an opportunity, an opportunity for us to play at home that only sometime you have.
“Some players play all their career and they don’t have one tournament to play at home. Sometimes you are a lucky person and you have this chance. And in that moment, you have to use it.
You have to take this chance. Maybe after only 30 or 40 years it will come again. Maybe my son won’t have the chance to play this tournament; I don’t know.”
Matar praised previously under-fire manager Alberto Zaccheroni and his coaching staff for getting the victory against Australia, while also commending his teammates for a vastly improved performance.
He said the win at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium went some way to avenging the 2-0 defeat in 2015 to then-hosts Australia in the semi-finals, when the UAE rebounded to take bronze and secure their finest Asian Cup result on foreign soil. Matar missed the tournament through injury.
“Today is really a big relief for us,” he said. “We needed this win. Especially we had the opportunity in the last tournament with a better squad, and a better performance.
"Also, Australia have a good team and they were the defending champions, so for us there was pressure, but at the same time we wanted to prove something. And we did today.
"We got our result and we got our revenge. We didn’t do it in the same way, but at least we beat them."
Matar’s place in UAE football folklore is secure given his starring role in the national team’s 2007 Gulf Cup success, again on home soil. He scored the winner in the final.
Asked how the Asian Cup compares to that, he said: “It’s different. Different squad, different mentality, different football at that time. Today I’m more of a leader. In 2007, I was a young player coming to prove something.
“For me, I’ve done everything I think I can for my team, so now I have to share my experience with them. Read the game, give some advice, use my experience more.
“This is a tournament we never won before. The expectation is higher and fans want us to win the title because in 1996 we lost the final and the last tournament we went out in semi-final. So we have an opportunity now to win and we will try to figure out how we will do that.”