The last two years have been nothing if not eventful for the United Arab Emirates. Back in January 2012 the national side plummeted to 138th place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the logical outcome of a string of bad results and the lowest position they had ever found themselves in since the Ranking’s creation in 1993.
The UAE Football Association’s reaction to that nadir was to appoint Mehdi Ali as national team coach in March 2012. It seemed a wise choice, as least if Ali’s achievements in taking UAE to the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009 and to the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 were anything to go by.
The head of a road-refurbishment and transport company based in Abu Dhabi, Ali wasted little time in justifying his appointment, masterminding their stunning 2013 Gulf Cup triumph in Bahrain, a tournament in which they won all their matches.
Under Ali’s watchful eye, The Whites have also recorded three straight wins in Group E of the ongoing qualifying competition for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, and also completed a lengthy round of friendlies without suffering a single defeat.
Not surprisingly the amazing turnaround in their form has led to a dramatic improvement in their FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. In October alone the Emiratis climbed 11 places to 71st (seventh in Asia), their best position since June 2006.
Mehdi’s miracle men have now gone a remarkable 16 matches unbeaten, their latest addition to that sequence coming last Saturday, when they put four goals past the Philippines without reply.
Asked about his side’s impressive revival, the 48-year-old Emirati coach said: “We take all our games very seriously, and we take into account every little detail we think can make a difference. It’s a young team but they’ve already acquired a lot of experience in the 50 internationals they’ve played now.
“I can’t fault the spirit in the side either. Our aim is to carry on picking up convincing results in every competition and in all the qualifiers we take part in.”
There can be no questioning Ali’s commitment to youth. The nucleus of his side is formed by a mix of veterans from the U-23 team’s London 2012 campaign and the players who served him so well at Egypt 2009, the same players who helped win the Asian U-19 title a year before that.
That winning feeling
Though Ali’s reign began with a 1-0 defeat to Japan in September 2012, any doubts about the wisdom of his appointment were quickly dispelled by a 3-0 win over Kuwait and a 2-2 draw with Uzbekistan the following month.
Better was to come, as The Whites went on a ten-match winning spree, which began with three friendly wins and then featured a perfect run at the 2013 Gulf Cup, where they overcame Qatar, Bahrain and Oman in the group phase, saw off Kuwait in the semi-finals and beat Iraq 2-1 in the final.
Hungry for even more, Ali’s prodigies maintained their fierce pace in the Asian Cup qualifiers, disposing of Vietnam and Uzbekistan by identical 2-1 scorelines before cruising to a 4-0 defeat of Hong Kong. A friendly win over New Zealand in September kept the momentum going as they continued their climb up the global ranking.
Should they extend their winning streak against Hong Kong on Friday and then Vietnam four days later, the UAE will make sure of a place at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia, though as far as Ali is concerned, qualification is just a stepping stone to bigger things.
“Success breeds success and boosts the morale and confidence of our players,” he said. “If the national team is going to keep on improving, it needs be up there with the best in continental tournaments. This team has a future and taking part in the 2015 Asian Cup is not an end in itself. We’re aiming for the last four in Australia.”
Though Ali might not admit it, there is no doubt he also has his sights on another goal: that of taking Emiratis into uncharted territory and beyond their all-time Ranking high of 42nd.