Two years of preparations are at risk of being cast aside in the space of 48 hours on Sunday when the UAE face two-time champions Russia at the Beach Soccer World Cup in Paraguay.
After a humbling 5-1 defeat to debutants Belarus on Friday, the UAE must now win their second Group C clash if they are to keep alive their dream of progressing to the knock-out stages at the biennial global showpiece.
The surprise loss to Belarus left some UAE personnel angry and others in tears. Bader Hareb, head of the country’s delegation, was firmly in the former camp, vehemently criticising the players post-match for failing to follow coach Mohammed Bashir’s instruction.
Yet now, with the sand settled and after long conversations with the players – both as a group and individually – Hareb believes they are ready to bounce back.
“In general, we did not play very well against Belarus – that was not the UAE we know,” Hareb said. “You will see a different team in the next game, inshallah. Of course, Russia will be tough – they are one of the best teams in the world and have been champions twice – but we like playing against tough teams.
“It might bring out the best in us. That is our hope. Maybe we underestimated Belarus because they are playing here for the first time, but we know and respect Russia and will benefit from being the underdog.”
The two countries have met once before at a Word Cup, in 2008 when Russia won 5-0. Yet at this month’s Intercontinental Cup in UAE, the two sides clashed again and this time the hosts won to secure third-place overall.
Even though Russia’s line-up was largely experimental, Hareb believes the result will give his team the belief they can get what they need. “We won in Dubai, so we know we can do it,” he said. “And now, because of the first match, we have no choice. If we want to get through the group, probably we need to win in regular time.”
Unlike association football, there are no draws in beach soccer. A team that wins in regular time is awarded three points, whereas a team that wins in extra-time or on penalties is awarded two points or one point respectively.
Bashir, who also led the UAE at the 2017 World Cup, was surprisingly upbeat immediately after the defeat to Belarus. As veteran midfielder Ali Karim cried in front of reporters at the prospect of a sixth successive group stage elimination, the UAE coach cut a contrasting figure, laughing with Belarus’s Spanish trainer Nico Alvorado.
“This is football,” Bashir said. “Belarus are the third-best team in Europe and have played more than 50 games in the past year. We have played eight or nine. Of course we wanted to beat them, but we need to be balanced. Russia now is a great opportunity to win back some pride and that is what we must focus on. It will be difficult; we didn’t want to be in the position where we must win, but what can we do? We must try.”
Russia edged Senegal 8-7 in their opening match and will secure their place in the quarter-finals with another three points on Sunday.
“We will try to make less mistakes against the UAE than we did against Senegal,” said defender Yury Krasheninnikov.
“They beat us in Dubai, so we want to show that it was just a one-off. We know the UAE have never progressed to the knock-out stages and they want to change that, but for us it is a tradition we like and hope continues.”
Fellow Gulf representatives Oman will also be in action. They face Nigeria looking to get their campaign up and running after an 8-2 defeat to reigning champions Brazil.
“We didn’t really even consider the prospect of beating Brazil,” admitted goalkeeper Amjad Al Hamdani. “But Nigeria is different. They also lost big [10-1 to Portugal] so that gives us hope that we can get the three points. We will go into the game in a different mindset and inshallah can win it for our people.”