Used to watching on television players he hoped would one day be teammates, Ali Saleh is now alongside them, plotting a path towards the 2022 World Cup.
The UAE youngster, 19, is viewed by many as the face of the next generation, the Arabian Gulf League’s current young player of the year fast finding his feet within the national team set-up.
Last month, Saleh made his competitive debut, selected to start in the opening Group G qualifier against Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. This week, he is training again with the squad, chosen once more by new manager Bert van Marwijk for the upcoming double-header against Indonesia and Thailand. Indonesia are first up, in Dubai on Thursday.
A member of the past few squads, and intent on another starting role, Saleh has patently settled in well. Still, mixing it with Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout and Co did taking a bit of getting used to.
“I’ve always played against them, but to actually play with them is very exciting,” the Al Wasl forward says. “They’re such good players, especially the likes of Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout.
“You can really learn from them; they're players I feel have the quality to play anywhere in the world. These are guys that I used to watch on TV, so playing alongside them is such a great opportunity.”
Saleh is hoping he will have plenty more time to forge those relationships. Van Marwijk has been impressed by the winger’s aptitude and application, making him an ever-present since his appointment in March.
Against Malaysia, and in a youthful line-up that featured four players aged 23 and under, Saleh’s display was marked by his commitment to the cause. It is what he feels has carried him this far already.
“During camp and pre-season I was working hard, I was trying my best,” Saleh says. “I’m just glad that I got the opportunity to play."
Clearly, he has been impressed as much by Van Marwijk as the Dutchman has been by him.
"The manager really gives you confidence; he allows you to express yourself on the field," Saleh says. “Obviously we have our tactics that we need to follow, but he’s really good with the young players and trusts them enough to give them a chance. I’ve enjoyed all the time playing under him.
“It’s been good, especially as one of the younger players and being able to play for my country, which itself is very exciting. Hopefully, I can progress.”
Progress is exactly what the UAE have in mind, even this early in Round 2 of qualification for Qatar 2022. They were somewhat fortunate in Kuala Lumpur last time out, recovering from a goal in the opening minute to turn around the match and eke out a 2-1 win.
Mabkhout, so often the team’s savior, scored in either half, yet the UAE must perform better in front of Indonesia this week and Thailand five days later, in Bangkok.
“It was not our best performance against Malaysia, but the most important thing was that we got the three points to begin qualification,” Saleh says. “And I’m positive that we will improve.
“Personally, I’m just trying to learn as much as I can from the others, get some experience from the games. We’ve got a better understanding and we get better every time we play together. That’s how it’s been going, so hopefully that can continue."
Saleh and the squad are focused on opening the dual assignment with an improved performance against Indonesia. Ranked 101 places below the UAE at 167th in the Fifa standings, the Southeast Asians have begun qualification with two defeats, losing 3-2 to Malaysia and 3-0 Thailand. Both matches were played at home in Jakarta.
Perhaps a trip to Dubai and Al Maktoum Stadium may free them of pressure, however slight. Nevertheless, the UAE are expected to register another win, although Saleh is guarding against complacency.
“The first game gave us confidence so we’re pretty confident going into the match,” he says. “Indonesia’s a strong side, so we’re just going try our best and hopefully we will come out with another win.
“Playing with the national team is more of a responsibility because you’re representing the whole country, not just one club. It’s a really big honour. So it’s important we try our best and win the next game.”
Eager for another spot in Van Marwijk’s first XI, Saleh seems to be relishing the challenge.
“I don’t really get nervous when it comes to football,” he says, smiling. “I might get nervous during interviews, but football’s no problem.”