ABU DHABI // We had known since November that the UAE's World Cup qualifying campaign would end yesterday. The pleasant surprise was the defiance the national team showed on their way out the door.
It could have been an almost unbearable afternoon for the senior side, and many pundits expected just that.
Exiting the third round without a single point from six matches. Losing again to Lebanon, erstwhile outsiders in Asian football, before a crowd of 10,231, about 10,000 of whom were Lebanon fans. And then trying not to watch as Lebanon's players and fans celebrated – on UAE soil – winning their way into the final round of Brazil 2014 qualifying.
Instead, three of the UAE’s old hands scored, and when a 4-2 victory was complete the Emiratis could hold their heads up even as Lebanon players and fans awkwardly semi-celebrated a comprehensive defeat – and backing into the next round of qualifying thanks to South Korea defeating Kuwait 7,000 kilometres away.
“At last, we achieved something from this tournament,” said Abdullah Misfir, the UAE coach for the final four games of group play.
“We do not leave the tournament with our hands empty.”
And they can be excused for taking a little pleasure at the downcast expressions of Lebanese supporters who had come fully expecting to celebrate both advancement and victory at Al Nahyan Stadium.
In Lebanon, schoolchildren had been dismissed at 1pm yesterday so that they could see the match, which began at 2pm in Beirut. Presumably, classes did not end early so that the children could see their team bleed four goals.
No one had quite verbalised it, but the UAE clearly were the "extras" in this production of the Lebanese football feel-good movie. Following the UAE's shock 3-1 defeat in Beirut back in September, the national side deserved credit on this day for strongly suggesting that the earlier game was the fluke, and this one the reality.
Lebanon’s coach, the German Theo Bucker, said that his side had grown overconfident, which he suggested was madness, given that Lebanon were ranked No 187 in the world last April.
“We allowed ourselves to think we can win all the matches to the end of time,” Bucker said. “We have brought up our level in five, six months, but that is nothing in football.
“This match showed us exactly where our point is, and now we have three or four months more to bring us up to a higher level than we showed in this match.”
Misfir introduced several players with very little international experience into the UAE line-up. But it was veterans who scored the goals and dominated the game.
Matar, 28, the nation’s best attacking player for a decade now, rattled home a marvellous free kick from 35 yards out. Saeed, 30, the captain, launched a heavy blast from long range that Lebanon’s goalkeeper could not handle, and followed on his own shot with a well-placed goal at the far post in the 79th minute. And Ali Al Wehaibi, 28, the little winger, tormented Lebanon up the right side and got in front of the net to score in the first half.
What began as a day of Lebanon football celebration turned tense at half time, when the game at Al Wahda’s ground was 2-2 while South Korea and Kuwait were locked in a 0-0 match in Seoul. A Lebanon defeat and Kuwait victory would have left out the Boys from Beirut.
At 5.26pm, South Korea scored and Lebanese fans let out a shout. Three minutes later, Matar’s goal gave the UAE the lead, and they went quiet. At 5.31pm, the Koreans scored again in Seoul, leading to Lebanon fans holding up two fingers in the air, and eight minutes later Saeed’s second goal made it 4-2 in Abu Dhabi, and the stadium began to empty.
One defeat over Lebanon does not cure what ails the national side. The FA need to decide who will lead the team; Misfir's contract expires in May, and he is not likely to be retained.
Goalscorers must be discovered or developed; Matar cannot play forever, and as good as the Under 23 side are, scoring is not their strong suit.
They must arrest what seems to be a steady slide into continental footballing irrelevance. Not that they do it alone. (See: Saudi Arabia.) But those are issues for days to come.
Yesterday, a team playing for nothing more than pride dominated a side who aspire to the World Cup finals. Given how the previous five games played out, it looked and felt pretty good.