DUBAI // Srecko Katanec's appointment as head coach of the UAE national team has become the subject of an intense debate among fans and pundits alike. The 45-year-old Slovenian, who was unveiled on Monday night, has been involved only with modest European sides in his previous jobs. Many here were expecting a bigger name, one of the more glamorous coaches, to get the job.
But Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi, president of the UAE Football Association, has defended the choice, pointing to Katanec's success with smaller sides in a football region as tough as Europe. Katanec guided Slovenia into the Euro 2000 and 2002 World Cup finals. In his last job, with the Republic of Macedonia, the tiny nation scored a stunning win over Scotland. "Who won the Champions League this season?" asked al Rumaithi. "Barcelona, and their coach was Josep Guardiola.
"It's a pity that we don't know much about football. We only know who coaches AC Milan, Barcelona, Brazil or Italy. We don't know about the others. There are good coaches elsewhere, but we don't know about them." Praising Katanec's attitude, al Rumaithi added: "I think we have got a good, honest guy. A disciplined, ambitious man having good experience with third or fourth level teams in Europe. "When we think about it logically, a coach who succeeds with a poor team, and takes them to a World Cup, is better than a coach taking a big team and winning the World Cup with them. This is how we looked at it."
Another criticism levelled against Katanec was his lack of awareness of the region's football, but al Rumaithi countered: "If we want every coach who comes to this region to have prior experience, four of the six countries in the Gulf will not have any coaches. "You have to start somewhere. He has not come here, but if you ask him about UAE now, he knows a lot about the country. "He understands how we think and how we carry ourselves. He knows our passion for football from day one.
"Anyway, he is not new to us. Srecko was here four years ago. We met him and were about to sign with him, but then Dick Advocaat, the Dutch coach came aboard and we took him. Unfortunately he ran away after just three months." Katanec succeeds the Frenchman Dominique Bathenay, whose term expired after the final 2010 World Cup qualifying game in Iran earlier this month. The UAE's disappointing campaign ended with a single point and defeats in seven of the eight games.
"We will give him the whole picture of what has gone wrong, or right, in the last four years," said al Rumaithi. "He knows that the team got just one point out of eight games and he will work on that. "I am sure that he will do his best. There is no doubt about that. You will see him going to the Pro League; you will see him going to the Premier League, which we have initiated this year. He will be visiting the clubs and co-ordinating with the coaches."
Katanec's reign could also see a change in player personnel, with some of the old guard making way for new blood, especially with the success of the youth team, which won the Asian title and will be going to the Under 20 World Cup in Egypt later this year. "He will go to Egypt to watch the youth team," said al Rumaithi. "Next year we have the Asian Games and that team will comprise of players born in 1987-88. Players like Mohammed al Shehi, Ahmed "Dada" Mubarak, Ismail al Hammadi will also go along with the team.
"So I think the team that will go for the Asian will be a strong team as well. That perhaps could be the platform for our new generation. "Of course, we will not forget players like Ismail Matar, Abdulraheem Jumaa and a couple of others. But there will be some changes, according to the coach's request or decisions. "We, the UAEFA and Srecko, are speaking on the same wavelength. We have already discussed things and he believes in what we say, and we believe in what he says."