After a sumptuous opening ceremony and the hosts’ first match at the Zayed Sports City stadium, all of the group’s 12 matches took place at the state-of-the-art Mohammad Bin Zayed ground in Abu Dhabi. Group A consisted of the UAE and three first-timers: Burkina Faso, Slovakia and outsiders Panama.

The Honest Men put in an honest shift
Burkina Faso, West Africa’s newest sensation, ruled Group A with an iron fist. Solid at the back, the Burkinabe finished the group phase as the only side at the finals not to concede a goal – the first African team to do so in the competition’s history. But they were made to suffer for their supper as Panama came within nine minutes of taking a point off Mart Nooij’s men at the start. But a smashing goal from substitute Aristide Bance settled the score and sent them on their way (1-0). Another goal, this time early on from Ousseni Zongo saw the Africans send flu-ravaged Slovakia sulking off to the showers. Their third with the hosts proved a bit of a damp squib as Nooij tried out a few new men, knowing full well a draw would see them top the group with seven points. “We have a very strong defence,” the Dutch boss said. “We have no grand plan for the competition, just focussing on the next match that comes our way. We want to play as many games here in UAE as we can.”

Slovakia scrap to second spot
Playing at their first FIFA finals, Slovakia wasted no time stamping their authority on the proceedings with a 4-1 thrashing of the hosts in front of 46,000 fans at the Zayed Sports City stadium. efender Milos Brezinsky’s opener in minute 5 had some of the not so faithful heading for the exits. Three more from Juraj Halenar, Marek Cech and Filip Holosko had the Europeans looking like a fearsome juggernaut. But ravaged by illness, they had to line up against Burkina Faso without top striker Filip Sebo and captain Marian Kurty. The two were sorely missed as the Slovaks stumbled to a 0-1 loss. Again in their last match with Panama, they had to do without their ill-taken teammates, but a second-half wonder strike from Viktor Pecovsky was enough to see them through as deserved second-place finishers. “We are thrilled to qualify for the next phase,” coach Peter Polak said. “We have some sick players, but now we will have some time to rest and recover.”

Hopeful hosts cling to third
Led by ultra-experienced French boss Jean-Francois Jodar, the Emirates had a full two years to prepare for the finals. With expectation mounting, the humble hosts opened in the worst possible way, conceding a goal after only five minutes of their opener with Slovakia. But after losing 1-4 and looking sure for a spot in the breadline, the plucky side bounced back and, led by brilliant playmaker Ismail Matar, managed to put Panama to the sword the next time out. A penalty from Shehab Ahmed and a late winner from Saleh Hamad sent the full house of supporters into an absolute frenzy against Panama. Facing a must-draw third match with group-rulers Burkina Faso, the young Emirates probably figured they were done for. But a valiant 90 minutes of football saw them earn a crucial point from a 0-0 draw and a spot as one of the top third-place finishers. ““I am very satisfied with the four points,” said Jodar. “I am proud of my team - they always fought, they never gave up and they did themselves proud.”

Plucky Panama finish pointless
anama were always going to have a long road to hoe heading into their first-ever FIFA finals. But with talented players like Rodrigo Tello in the side, no one in Group A would have done well to take them lightly. But despite their courage and skill, the upstarts were sent packing with zero points from three matches (0-1 against Burkina Faso, 1-2 against UAE and 0-1 against Slovakia). Yet with mere one-goal margins of defeat in each match and some decidedly bad luck, the youngsters can still take pride in their hallmark achievement for the traditionally non-footballing nation. “We were no joke,” said coach Gary Stempel after Panama’s last match. “We showed that the difference between Panama and some of the bigger nations isn’t so great. We always played hard and with tremendous spirit, and this experience is an important milestone for Panamanian football.”