Only one team can win in the end, but for every side that fell short there is always a silver lining. For UAE, that silver lining is Ismaeil Matar.
Living the dream
The Olympic tournament is essentially an U-23 event, but every team is entitled to include three players over the age limit. For UAE coach Mahdi Redha, including 29-year-old Matar was a no-brainer, given the Al Wahda star’s vision, skills and attacking flair.
His call-up came at the end of long and draining domestic season but Matar rose to the occasion, fine-tuning his physical fitness to ensure he would be ready for the big date. As the man himself says, he was never going to miss out on the chance.
“It’s a huge honour to represent my country at such a massive international event,” Matar emphasised. “The chance wasn’t going to come again. Before I joined my team-mates for the finals I raised the intensity of my training program.”
But the challenges did not stop there: “When I was made captain I had even more responsibilities. My job on the pitch got a lot more complicated and I just hope people appreciate what I did.”
Appreciation is certainly what he deserves after his contribution to UAE’s impressive first outing at London 2012, what promised to be a tough Group A match at Old Trafford against Uruguay.
Matar’s goal in the 23rd minute stunned the South American favourites and UAE took full advantage while their opponents remained on the back foot, creating a number of chances without finding the back of the net. Uruguay eventually pulled two goals back, courtesy of the luck that evaded Matar’s men and came away with a shaky victory.
The Gulf side’s next group game was another loss, this time to hosts Great Britain, whose experience and overwhelming home ground advantage told heavily against the Emiratis. Their last encounter was against Senegal and UAE rallied admirably, pulling out a 1-1 draw, with the irrepressible Matar supplying the strike.
It may have been in a losing cause, but Matar’s brace was characteristic of the man and brought back memories of his past heroics in tournaments of every kind, from the international to the regional.
A young Matar rocketed to fame as part of the UAE side that qualified for the finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2003, hosted in the Emirates. The competition was replete with names that would go on to become icons of the sport, such as Andres Iniesta and Javier Mascherano, but, backed by vocal home support, Matar pipped the competition to the post with some stellar performances and was crowned Player of the Tournament.
Matar has fond memories of his big break. “It was an excellent competition for us as a team,” he recalled. “We got results that no one expected. Reaching the quarter-finals was a big deal and if we’d had a bit more luck we could have reached the semis, and then, who knows?”
His award came as something of a surprise: “I didn’t expect to be named best player. When the shortlist for the award came out I received an urgent call to come to the stadium where the final was being played.
“After the match when the trophies and medals were being handed out, I was declared the winner and the first thing that came into my head was that I was representing the UAE. The award was for everybody, not just myself. It was a huge honour and I’ll never forget it!”
The last time UAE featured at the finals of the FIFA World Cup™ was way back in 1990, but there have been a plethora of club and regional tournaments for a quality player like Matar to demonstrate his class.
In 2007, UAE played host to the 18th edition of the Gulf Cup, a tournament they had never won. An inspired Matar set out to turn history on its head almost single-handedly.
Not only was he the tournament’s top scorer with five goals to his credit, his successful strikes came at key moments, most notably his last-gasp goal in the semi-finals to claim a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia, followed by his 72nd-minute, cup-winning goal against Oman in the final.
His performance at the tournament earned him Player of the Tournament and cemented his position as one of the greats of Emirati football.
Winner for Al Wahda
Aside from a brief spell on loan to Qatar outfit Al Sadd in 2009, Matar has spent his entire club career with Al Wahda, helping them to three league titles. The most recent of these came at the end of the 2009/10 season and saw Al Wahda qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup 2010, where Matar once again stamped his presence on the world stage, scoring once and guiding his side to the quarter-finals.
It comes as no surprise to discover that the versatile Matar, comfortable both as an out-and-out striker or attacking midfielder, heads the all-time goalscorers’ list at Al Wahda. No less impressive is his dedication. After returning from London, Matar made his way straight to the training ground to ready himself for the new season.
He may be getting on in years, but for Matar there is no end in sight. “I still have lots to give,” he insisted. “I won’t be retiring. The idea never came into my head! I want to play more. The pitch is where I belong and I haven’t had enough of it yet!”
If Matar hopes to escape the spotlight after his showing at London 2012 he is in for a disappointment. More than ever before he will be the benchmark by which other UAE players are assessed, and with a new season round the corner football fans throughout his nation will be hoping for, and expecting, nothing but the best.