For many watching the UAE’s Group C clash against Bahrain, the incident barely warranted mention.
For those familiar with the controversial career of the UAE goalkeeper and captain, it was a revelation.
Majed Naser had just been bundled over as he came out for a high ball and went down reaching for his back.
Incensed, several UAE defenders squared up to a Bahraini striker and for a few moments the situation threatened to get out of hand.
But there in the middle of it was Naser, erstwhile bad boy of Emirati football, playing the peacemaker, urging his teammates away and putting a friendly arm around the opposition player.
This is a new Naser. Written off not long ago as a hothead who could not keep his temper in check, he has reinvented himself at the Asian Cup.
The Al Ahli goalkeeper’s list of disciplinary troubles is long and well documented. Two months ago, he was facing a six-month suspension handed down by the Football Association’s disciplinary committee for his latest rush of blood to the head and probably as far away from Mahdi Ali’s thoughts as he has been since the coach took over the national job in late 2012.
Then fate stepped in to offer Naser a shot at redemption. His ban was overturned on appeal. Then, the incumbent national team keeper, Ali Kasheif, was injured, which led to Mahdi Ali recalling the UAE’s keeper at the past two Asian Cups.
As the senior member of the squad, at age 30, he was given the captain’s armband. It was an unequivocal show of faith by Mahdi Ali, one that left many wondering if he would live to regret it.
The response from Naser has been remarkable.
In Australia, he has come across as relaxed, humble and grateful for a barely expected, or as even he would acknowledge, deserved second chance.
“I’m very happy to be back with the national team, the technical staff and my fellow players have been very supportive,” he said. “I made a promise to Mahdi Ali. I won’t say I have upheld the promise yet, but this is part of it. I’m trying not to think about the past but to think about the future.”
Mahdi Ali is not a man to suffer fools and he must have had a good idea of what he and the team would get out of Naser’s return to the squad.
Aside from his even demeanour, Naser has stepped into the defence so seamlessly that Kasheif’s absence has hardly been noticed.
He was partly to blame for Qatar’s goal in the opening fixture, but since then his performances have been exemplary.
He has not been tested many times, but he has dealt competently with everything he has faced and certainly was faultless for Iran’s late winner.
He has played a big part in organising his defence, always communicating with the back four, always shouting encouragement. He has dominated his penalty area, consistently and confidently coming out for crosses and long balls.
His recall, so far, has been a master stroke by the coach.
Last week, Naser revealed that the difference between this UAE squad and those at the 2007 and 2011 Asian Cups is that Mahdi Ali’s squad go into matches “expecting to win”.
Having tasted bitter disappointment in group-stage exits at those two tournaments, he must have thought his time at this level had long gone.
From football wilderness a month ago to captaining his country in the Asian Cup quarter-final against champions Japan, Naser is fast making up for lost time and making good on that promise to his coach.
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