SYDNEY // Given what is hanging on Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Australia, it would be a surprise if the UAE’s footballers needed any extra inspiration to fuel them.
At their final training session before their Judgment Night at the Sydney Football Stadium, they were given some anyway, with an impromptu visit by Princess Haya bint Al Hussein.
On Saturday, it had been the Dubai World Cup at Meydan. Two days later, the wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, had made it to Sydney, and looked in to will the country’s footballers on towards their own World Cup dream.
On Friday, she wrote in The National about overcoming challenges to achieve horse racing success.
After meeting each of the players, Mahdi Ali, the UAE manager, invited her to dispense similar words of wisdom to his players.
She did, briefly, and the players were both captivated, then amused when she implored them to beat the Australians.
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The pep talk was gratefully received by a set of players who must be feeling the burden of expectation. Because, it is fair to say, the challenge facing the UAE is vast.
Success against Australia in Australia in World Cup qualifiers is only marginally less common than snow on Jumeirah Beach. Australia have lost just one such game in 56 matches stretching back to 1981.
Furthermore, Australia ended the UAE's thrilling tilt at the Asian Cup in 2015, when they beat them in the semi-final in Newcastle. And then there was the first meeting between them in this qualifying campaign, which ended in a 1-0 defeat in Abu Dhabi.
Repeat that, and the UAE’s hopes of reaching Russia would be as good as over. The finest generation of players since that which reached the World Cup in 1990 would be deprived a similar end game.
And, in all likelihood, the mentor who has overseen the good times would likely have to pay for the bad with his job. Yet Mahdi Ali remains sanguine about his prospects.
“I don’t feel that pressure,” he said in an auditorium at the Sydney Football Stadium, his words battling against the thwack of cricket balls being hit by junior players just outside.
“I am doing my job. I am not only a coach, I’m a UAE citizen, and I have the same feeling as the players and the fans.
“For me, it is my job and I have to do it properly. The most important thing is to be satisfied with the amount of work that you do, because the result will be God’s will.
“I am very happy about what I have done. I did not regret anything that I have done. I do my job, I try to work hard with the players, we always work together as a team and a family, and at the end, it is God’s will. We cannot change destiny.”
The manager retains the poise and dignity which he carried into this job. Not just the national team job, but the project of nurturing skilled young boys into a team to make the country proud started nearly a decade ago.
Safe to assume, he and his players are not planning on giving their dream away without a fight. Australia know it, too.
“You have to realise what’s at stake,” Mile Jedinak, the Australia captain, said.
“These countries don’t always get opportunities to qualify for World Cups, so it is just as important for them as it is for us. Who is not going to want to fight tooth and nail to get there?”
Mahdi Ali echoed that view. “We don’t have anything else we have to think about, because this could be the last chance,” he said.
“We have to fight for our chance. We don’t have any other choice. We know when you travel 14 hours, and there is a seven hour time difference, it is difficult for anybody, but we have to adapt.
“We have been in this situation many times. Inshallah, we will be ready.”
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