Among the United Arab Emirates’ players, the joy was obvious. As the final whistle blew on their meeting with Uzbekistan, it brought to an end the third round of Asian Zone qualifiers for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament – and, more importantly, it brought UAE a historic ticket to London 2012.
The happiest player on the pitch that day was perhaps Hamdan Al Kamali, who had travelled all the way from France and his club side Lyon to slip on the captain’s armband and do everything he could to help his side seal their progress.
In London, UAE will come up against Great Britain, Senegal and Uruguay in Group A, but, as Al Kamali explained to FIFA.com, he and his team-mates remain supremely confident they can advance from their section.
UAE made a sluggish start to the third round of Asian Zone qualifiers, kicking off with 0-0 draws against both Australia and Uzbekistan. They were quickly able to turn things around, however, and by the time they had kicked their last ball, they lay top of Group B and had grasped automatic qualification to London 2012.
For Al Kamali, who turned 23 last week, reaching this summer’s tournament had “a special feel to it”. “We’ve already played in several major competitions, but the Olympic Games is a worldwide competition that many players would love to take part in,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of responsibility on our shoulders as it will be the Emirates’ first ever appearance in it. For us, this qualification is historic. We’re going to compete in an international tournament with teams of a very high standard, and I hope we can represent Emirati football in the right way.”
The desire to do well also has much to do with grabbing an opportunity after what was a tough qualifying process, and Al Kamali still has vivid memories of UAE’s sternest test on the road to London. “It was without doubt our match against Australia, which we won (1-0) at home,” he said. “Our supporters spurred us on for the whole game and that win was our first step in sealing our qualification for London 2012.”
A defender by trade, and standing 1.83m tall, he also paid tribute to coach Mahdi Ali for leading the Olympic side to success, before dedicating the qualification to former team-mate Diab Awana, who died in a car accident last year.
“Mahdi Ali brought a huge amount to the team,” he said. “He oversaw a number of wins in a short space of time thanks to his special relationship with the players. He’s not just a coach; he’s also like a big brother who takes an interest in his players away from the pitch and helps them.”
As for Awana, Al Kamali was unable to hide his emotions as he remembered his old colleague. “He had a lot of dreams, and it’s for him that we achieved all this. He’ll always remain in our hearts and we’ll never forget him. I miss him enormously.”
Despite his young age, Al Kamali will voyage to London with a healthy experience of major international tournaments already under his belt. He led UAE to victory at the AFC U-19 Championship in 2008 and took part in the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009, as well as representing Al Wahda at the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup. He now expects the Olympic Games to provide another vital building block in his career development.
“To appear in an international competition like this one is of course very important, especially as we’ll be taking on teams who have a lot of players based in Europe,” he said. “We’re pleased to have been drawn in such a difficult group as we can only improve by facing these opponents. It won’t be easy for us, but we’re happy because we’ll be playing in Europe’s most prestigious stadiums, like Wembley and Old Trafford. I hope we can show the whole world the progress Emirati football has made.”
Al Kamali does not think his side will be overawed by the occasion either, and feels they can leave a real mark on the tournament. “Our main goal is to get out of the group. If we manage to do that, things will become easier for us as we’ll only be one match away from the semi-finals. I hope we can reach that stage.”
The centre-back certainly has reason to aim high, having become the first Emirati player to join one of Europe’s major club sides after agreeing a loan move from Al Wahda to Lyon in January. “Lyon and Al Wahda started discussions last summer, but nothing was finalised until Lyon came back in for me during the winter transfer window,” he recalled.
“I have to thank Al Wahda club president Sheikh Diab Bin Zayed and all the officials who gave me the chance to try my luck abroad. I hope I don’t disappoint them, despite the size of the task ahead of me. So far, everything has gone as expected.”
Al Kamali now believes London 2012 could give his UAE team-mates a unique chance to follow in his footsteps and continue their club careers in Europe. “We have a lot of talent back home, but our football can only progress if we get more contact with foreign championships,” he said. “Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed has done a lot for football and the UAE Football Association takes care of training youngsters. I hope that taking part in the London Olympics will attract attention to Emirati players and that they’ll get the opportunity to play abroad.”
Al Kamali has already made that step, of course, but he is similarly ambitious as London 2012 approaches, dreaming that it can provide a watershed moment in his own career trajectory.