Widely regarded as one of the country’s most accomplished players, United Arab Emirates international Ismail Matar first served notice of his rich talent when he collected the adidas Golden Ball at the FIFA U-20 World Cup UAE 2003. At the showpiece event on home soil, the attacking midfielder’s inspirational displays helped drive the hosts all the way to the quarter-finals.
Four years later Matar impressed again on the international stage when UAE won the 2007 Gulf Cup, and on the home front he has won two league championships with his club Al-Wahda Sports Club, the second of them coming last season. That triumph has earned them a pace at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2010, which kicks off on Wednesday 8 December.
Coached by the Austrian Josef Hickersberger, the Abu Dhabi outfit's immediate aim is to improve on Al Ahli’s first-round exit in last season’s competition. To do that they will need to get past Oceania champions Hekari United FC in the tournament curtain-raiser. Chatting exclusively to FIFA.com, Matar discussed his side’s prospects ahead of the opening match, suggesting that victory over the Papua New Guinean side could herald the start of a new era in Emirati football.
Facing the first hurdle
“Win that game and we’ll take our first step forward in the competition,” said Matar expectantly. “Our immediate goal is to beat Hekari United so we can take on Seongnam of Korea in the second round. After that it’s the semi-finals.”
Future objectives aside, Matar is not taking the Hekari United threat lightly: “It’s our first game in what is a major competition and opening matches are always tough propositions. They’re a very ambitious team and they’ll be out to surprise us and earn the right to face the Asian champions. From what I’ve heard they’ve been preparing thoroughly. They’ve got quality players in every position and it won’t be a walk in the park for us by any means.
“We really want to beat them, though, and give the fans something to shout about. We’ve picked up a lot of experience playing in the AFC Champions League over the last few years and we have a good blend of youth and experience. Looking at the average age of the team I’d say we’ve got a pretty bright future ahead of us.”
Asked for an opinion on Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma F.C., whom his side will face if they beat Hekari United, Matar had this to say: “Everyone knows how strong South Korean football is and their clubs and the national team have done well for themselves in recent time. Seongnam have been dominating their league and they didn’t win the championship by chance.
“Winning the Champions League also showed how strong they are on the continent. They fully deserve their place in the competition and if we do get through, then we’ll really need to prepare well and stand up to them. They’ll want to do Asian football proud and they won’t be coming here to make up the numbers.”
Expectations to be met
Al Wahda’s domestic rivals Al Ahli were beaten 2-0 by Auckland City in last year’s opening match, a fate Matar believes his side can avoid. “I don’t want to be hard on the Al Ahli players,” he said. “They had a lot of problems to deal with going into that game. Several of their first-team players were injured and they didn’t have much time to prepare.”
And according to the Al Wahda star, they have learned lessons from their compatriots. “We’ve taken all those factors into account and there’s a lot of desire among the players to put on a good show and raise the profile of Emirati football. The UAE have enjoyed a lot of success lately, especially the national team, and at all age levels.”
Last year’s FIFA Club World Cup proved a success with Emirati football fans, and Matar is confident the locals will be turning out in force again, especially with his team carrying the flag for the Arab world and the likes of F.C. Internazionale Milano coming to town.
“Inter are the European champions and they’re a great club with many, many fans around the world, especially in the Middle East and the Gulf countries,” he said. “No doubt their supporters will be coming here in their thousands, and with the likes of Javier Zanetti and Samuel Eto’o they’ve got some genuine world stars. I’m also expecting all the Emirati fans to put their club allegiances to one side and to turn up and get behind Al Wahda, and I think all Arab people living in the UAE will be rooting for us too.”
“People from all over the world will be flocking to watch these stars in action, and whether they’re supporting their favourite team or just here to enjoy the spectacle I think they’re going to have a great time.”