Seven years to plot a return to UAE football's halcyon days

When considering the topic of "UAE football and the World Cup", the pertinent years are 1990 and 2018.

The UAE have suffered a disappointing 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign and have no chance of reaching the finals in Brazil even with two games left in qualifying.
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When considering the topic of "UAE football and the World Cup", the pertinent years are 1990 and 2018. The former marks the last time the national team reached the World Cup finals; the latter is the earliest opportunity that they could do so again.

The national team fell out of contention for the 2014 World Cup at the weekend, with two games still to play in the third round of Asia qualifying - and with two-and-half years to go before the big tournament in Brazil kicks off.

It is arguably the worst performance by the national team in qualifying; the format has changed over the years, but never before did the UAE fall with so many games still to be played.

How did things go so wrong? What can be done to improve the chances of the UAE playing in Russia 2018?

Those are questions now being asked by football officials, pundits and supporters after a short and hugely disappointing campaign.

Blame is piled high at the feet of Srecko Katanec, the Slovenian who led the national team for 27 months, until stunning defeats to Kuwait and Lebanon in the opening games of the current group competition essentially doomed the UAE and led to his dismissal, in early September.

"The technical side didn't do their duties," said Khaled Awadh, the assistant chief executive of Al Wahda and the team manager for the 2002 World Cup campaign. "The players were not treated nicely and they didn't cooperate with Katanec because of that. … We don't have that many talented players, so the motivation of the players is very important."

"Nobody liked Katanec," said Kefah Al Kaabi, an analyst for the MBC network. "His relationship with the players was terrible. He thought he was the star and nobody else could be the star besides him, and these problems started very early.

"We always wondered why the Olympic team played so well, so nice, and then many of these same players go to the first team and don't function as well, and all this is because of the coach. The players need to have a love in their heart for the coach, and they did not."

The interim senior team coach, Abdullah Misfir, led the UAE in two narrow defeats to South Korea, the most successful side in Asia, highlighting the gulf between Katanec and players, the argument goes. But even the harshest critics of Katanec concede the UAE's current football malaise has several components.

Among them:

ŸA lack of attacking players. The UAE failed to score in seven of 11 matches played, in aggregate, in the 2010 Gulf Cup, the 2011 Asian Cup and this round of World Cup qualifying. Katanec complained of the dearth of Emirati strikers in the first teams of the country's professional clubs, and the evidence supported him; Ismail Matar is the only Emirati striker of note who is in his club team's first XI.

ŸA resistance to having top Emirati players hone their skills in leagues outside the UAE. None do, at present, and it is not clear how many would like to. "We should really have that, a handful of players playing in high-level leagues," said Bernard Schumm, the FA's director of coaching and development. "It doesn't have to be Spain or England or Germany. Even if it's Austria or Switzerland, it would be a beginning, so that the mindset of the players is changed."

ŸThe potential reality that a nation with only one million citizens is not likely to develop enough talent to qualify routinely for the World Cup. When hiring Katanec, in 2009, Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithi, the FA president, said it made sense to hire someone from another small country (Slovenia: two million people) because he would understand the challenges of a shallow player pool. Katanec led Slovenia to the 2002 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships."

ŸA lack of cooperation between clubs and national team. The result seems to be national team players are not improving their skills. "It is important the national team coach works more with the clubs and give them more responsibility," Ivan Hasek, the former Al Ahli coach, said. "This is not happening."

ŸRising competition within the region. In 1990, the UAE was one of two Asian sides to reach the World Cup. Two decades later, Asia has twice as many guaranteed finals berths but the number of quality sides seems to have grown exponentially.

Japan and South Korea were still considered baseball countries, in 1990. Uzbekistan did not exist as an independent country. Australia was 16 years away from joining the Asian Confederation. All four sides are strong candidates to qualify for Brazil 2014. Even if the UAE had survived to the final round of qualifying, as they did ahead of the 2010 World Cup, this team seemed no more likely to succeed than did that 2010 side, who won one point from eight games.

Al Kaabi, however, said his concern is not about the continent's "big" sides. "We now lose to countries we used to beat," he said. "Everyone else is rising and we are standing still."

He suggested that the FA needs to be overhauled. "A coach can't do that much damage by himself. They backed him. It's time for new blood." Awadh said that the president, Al Rumaithi, is not to blame, but said of the FA: "Only a few people work; the rest of them, they just talk. They need a lot of changing in the federation." A case could be made that the UAE simply suffered bad luck. A seventh-minute goal in the Kuwait game on September 2, a match the national team expected to win, came as a shock, and the UAE never recovered. Matar was unavailable for that game, as well as the Lebanon defeat four days later. Also, a strong group of age-group players seemed to be just a bit too young to make a difference.

Walter Zenga, the coach of Al Nasr and a former Italy international, said the UAE's woes fall under one broad heading: a lack of professionalism.

Said Zenga: "We talk about professionalism and professional players; we want the foreign players to come and improve the locals; we want the coaches to do that. My question is, when will the local players take this responsibility? When will they start trying to improve themselves and become strong players? When will the time come when the foreign players or coaches are not needed?"

He said the current system allows for "professionals" to hold another job or continue to go to school when they ought to be "fully committed to football". He added: "If we cannot resolve this point, we will never be able to reach where we want to be with the clubs or the national team."

Al Kaabi said no one should doubt the importance of a berth in the World Cup finals. "Not going to the World Cup is a catastrophe," he said.

"Some countries would pay millions to see their name in the newspaper, when you go to the World Cup a billion people know you and they see your name on the map. Getting to the World Cup is a dream, and we will stay with this dream."

Additional reporting by Ahmed Rizvi