Olympic coach urges fans to back their bid for London 2012

Mahdi Ali wants the people of the UAE to pack Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium for the crucial clash with Australia.

Hamdan Kamali in training with the UAE team after receiving permission to return from Lyon.
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ABU DHABI // The finish line to a four-year journey is in sight, Mahdi Ali said, and he urged his players to seize their chance today and for UAE fans to be their witnesses.

The country’s Under 23 football team play Australia at 5.30pm at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in the second-last group match in qualifying for the London 2012 Olympics.

Two victories will gain them a place in the Summer Games for the first time and would rank behind only the 1990 World Cup appearance as the biggest achievement in UAE football history.

Ali began coaching these players in 2008, when they won the Under 19 Asian Cup in Dammam. He said the London 2012 Olympics were a distant goal, back then, one that only now has come into focus.

“We have a great chance to make this happen for the first time in the history of the UAE,” he said. “I think this is a big, big, big, big thing for the fans, the officials, the coaches, the players and staff, and I think we have to fight for this hope.

“Chances don’t come all the time. Sometimes you have only one chance, and you must fight to get it.”

The UAE cannot clinch a London berth today, nor can they be eliminated from contention; the decisive match will be in Uzbekistan on March 14. But the team certainly can ease their path to London by defeating Australia, who have their own slim chance still of advancing.

“All the players are ready,” said Mohammed Ahmed, the team captain. “We have played for many championships, and we think we are 100 per cent ready.”

Goals likely will come dear: the UAE have one in four matches; Australia have none. The UAE are on eight points from four matches: two scoreless draws, including one at Adelaide in September; a victory over Iraq 17 days ago, and a forfeit victory over Iraq from November, when the visitors used an ineligible player and a 2-0 UAE defeat became, two weeks ago, a 3-0 UAE victory.

Mahdi Ali">The line-up that won in Doha thanks to Ahmed Ali's goal could see several changes. A trio of players who typically have been in first XI did not play in the 1-0 victory but are now available: the Lyon defender Hamdan Al Kamali, the Al Ahli striker Ahmed Khalil and the Al Ain midfielder Omar Abdulrahman.

Amer Abdulrahman, the Baniyas midfielder and orchestrator of the UAE attack, injured his foot in a match with the Chinese club Dalian last week and his availability will not be known until just before the match, Ali said.

He said Australia are a formidable opponent. “They are a big team, and we’ve played against them many times, going back to the Asian Cup semi-finals in Dammam in 2008. The Australia team is in good shape, and they play rugby-style football.”

Ali said his strategy will not be impacted by the result of the match between Uzbekistan and Iraq last night, won 2-1 by Iraq.

come to support the team">He called on UAE fans to turn out in force for the match despite its early starting time. The stadium holds more than 45,000; it can seem nearly empty even with 10,000 inside.

“Anyone who loves his country will come no matter the time,” Ali said.

“We played against Iraq, and the Iraqi fans were more than the UAE fans. Whoever likes his country will need no invitation.”