After leading his charges to glory at the AFC U-19 Championship in Saudi Arabia in November 2008, United Arab Emirates head coach Mahdi Ali has told FIFA.com that he now covets global success at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009.
The draw for the group stages, which was held in Luxor back in April, placed the Asian champions in Group F alongside South Africa, Honduras and Hungary, and coach Ali believes his charges should be aiming to progress. "Taking part in the World Cup really matters. Our ambition, if I'm honest, is to fly high in the tournament, reach the latter stages and be good ambassadors for Asian football in general, and for the Emirati game in particular."
"The draw has pitted us in an even group with no very strong or very weak teams," continued the up-and-coming supremo, who also works as an engineer at the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority. "The team which prepares best will have the upper hand. I have total confidence that my charges will perform well at this prestigious tournament."
"We have started the preparatory process early this year," said Ali, when quizzed about the UAE's build-up to Egypt 2009. "We played a friendly tournament in Qatar, three other friendly matches in March and another two in April. Then we headed to the 2009 Toulon tournament in France where we crossed swords with Egypt, the Netherlands and Argentina."
Indeed, the UAE squad have a busy schedule ahead of the U-20 showpiece, which runs from 24 September to 16 October. Currently in Switzerland for a 35-day training camp, they will then travel to Turkey for another training camp, this time lasting 30 days, before heading to Egypt on 23 September, four days before their opening fixture against South Africa in Alexandria.
Coach Ali also revealed that his squad would feature some players that were not involved in the AFC triumph on Saudi Arabian soil: "There will be some changes to the squad. There'll be some newcomers involved at the tournament on the back of some fine performances in the local league."
"We've also got some injuries to contend with. Midfielder Aamer Abdulrahman had an operation two months ago and is expected to be ready to rejoin his team-mates in a couple of weeks' time. Meanwhile, left-winger Rashid Isa will miss the tournament due to surgery on his cruciate knee ligament," added Ali.
"We've done our utmost to prepare our players as best we can to cope with any opponents," said the young strategist, regarding the variety of footballing styles his team are likely to face in Egypt. "Our boys recently played against sides as different as Serbia, Japan and Syria in an international friendly tournament in Qatar, as well as playing other friendlies against Senegal, Trinidad and Tobago, Argentina and the Netherlands."
"Every team we will play against in the group stage of the World Cup will be different from the others," he said of the UAE's Group F rivals. "The African teams are well known for their physical strength, speed and skill. Meanwhile the footballing approach of the European sides is totally different from CONCACAF teams."
Egypt 2009 will be the UAE's third appearance at the finals of a FIFA U-20 World Cup, having made their debut at Malaysia 1997 and hosted the event in 2003, underlining just how seriously the Emiratis take this competition.
"The officials from the national football associations have showed a huge amount of interest in our young team," said Ali as the interview drew to a close. "This generation of young players will form the backbone of senior side in the future, and this U-20 World Cup will be a great opportunity for those who burst onto the scene at the Asian Championship to really shine in Egypt."