In recent years football in the United Arab Emirates has achieved some notable successes in its youth categories. Victory at the AFC U-19 Championships in 2008 guaranteed them a berth at the following year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt, where the young Emiratis reached the quarter-finals for the second time in their history.
In 2010 the country’s U-23 Olympic side made an impressive showing at the Asian Games, held in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, where they reached the final only to lose by a single goal to Japan.
Much of the credit for these achievements has to go to one man, coach Mahdi Ali. Ali has enjoyed considerable international success thus far and is hoping to continue his fine record at the Olympic Football Tournament London 2012.
And the signs are certainly promising. UAE’s Olympic team are close to their goal of going through to the tournament finals for the first time in their history, sitting jointly top of Group B with Uzbekistan with just two games to go in the third round of qualifiers.
FIFA.com caught up with the Mahdi Ali ahead of his side’s game against Australia today to talk about the qualifying tournament and his successes in Emirati football.
A historic opportunity
The Asian qualifiers for London 2012 could not have started better for the Gulf team, who beat Sri Lanka 10-1 over two legs, then overcame a strong Korea DPR side 2-1 to go through to the third round, where they were drawn alongside Uzbekistan, Australia and Iraq.
After their early successes, the opening Group B exchanges failed to match expectations, with scoreless draws against Australia and Uzbekistan followed by a 2-0 reverse to Iraq. Paradoxically, it was this latter defeat that sparked a turnaround in their fortunes. Iraq were sanctioned for fielding an ineligible player and the result was declared a victory for UAE, who promptly responded to their unexpected reprieve by beating the same opponents 1-0 in their fourth game.
For his part, Mahdi Ali laid some of the blame for his side’s failure to score against Australia and Uzbekistan down to bad luck, saying: “Overall, we were better than those teams. We were fortunate to get so many chances on goal but we wasted them all. Things got better after that and I really hope we can score in the last two games.”
The UAE players will certainly be aiming to do just that on Wednesday to avoid pinning their hopes of qualification on their final game against joint leaders Uzbekistan on 14 March in Tashkent.
Despite the pressures, Ali remains sanguine about the Australia game: “We’ve prepared for this match like all the others. We’ll go into it in great spirits, because the three points we picked up [in the last game] against Iraq were a real morale boost and have put us in an excellent position.”
“We’re preparing well,” he went on to add. “Australia are no pushovers. They’re a well-organised outfit that rely on physical strength and discipline. We’ve already faced them twice and, God willing, we’ll be up to the job and win this one.”
The 46-year-old coach said qualifying for the Olympic Games is “the dream not only of the players and technical staff, but of the United Arab Emirates as a whole”.
“The current Olympic team have a great chance to go through,” he added, “so we’re going to fight to the last breath to realize our dream.”
A family affair
So what is the secret of his success, and how did this wily coach lead his charges to such giddy heights at the AFC U-19 Championship and the FIFA U-20 World Cup? The answer, says Ali, lies in the family atmosphere he has cultivated in his squad.
“There’s no real secret,” he revealed. “I just try and give my all, make sure they have all the support they need and get everything planned out beforehand. Communication is also important. There’s a family atmosphere in my squads and the players have really close relationships with the coaches, medical staff, management and each other. We’re one big family. If there is any secret, that’s it.”
Many of the current side have played under Ali in the younger age categories, but far from being an advantage, Ali says that it can make things harder.
“Look,” he explained, “I’ve been asked this question before but in my opinion it makes it more difficult. They need to learn new things; they need variety. If I’ve been around them for eight years and they know me backwards, then that makes it tough. On the other hand, communication gets much easier, so there are positives.”
As part of his constant quest to gain new experience, Ali took the opportunity to spend time with 2011 FIFA Club World Cup champions Barcelona.
“I wish the experience could have gone on for longer,” he said, “but I was already contracted to go and coach [UAE club side] Bani Yas. What can I say about Barcelona? They’re a huge club, and for me it was just more experience in the bank. I saw a lot of new things, both at the youth level and with the first team.”
Now Ali is hoping his charges can benefit from this wealth of knowledge and book their places at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.