Sharjah may be well known as a place of calm and religious serenity but on Tuesday night the emirate was transformed into a scene of mass jubilation with car horns blaring, tyres screeching, headlights flashing and flags waving after striker Ismail Matar scored a last-minute winner to give the UAE a historic place in the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Youth Championship.
“You don’t understand; this has never happened to us before,” said one man with tears streaking down his cheeks wetting his gotrah headdress. “It is like magic. Tonight, nobody will sleep, not in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai or anywhere in the Emirates. We will drive cars and dance into the early hours. We love football, we are crazy about it!”
And party they certainly did. Outside the hotel in Sharjah where the team were staying, cars and vans loaded with young men, some sitting atop car roofs and others hanging and dancing from windows, congregated to salute their heroes and one in particular – Ismail Matar. Many wore white head scarves fashioned from shirts, while some women, sat discreetly inside their vehicles with windows closed and air conditioning blasted to the full, watched on with laughing eyes detectable under their black shela headdress.
The Emirates’ captain and number 10 had put in a performance that will go down in UAE folklore.
From the fifth minute when his ferociously struck free kick was parried by Nathan Coe, he tormented the Australian defence. With his close control, brilliant dribbling, turn of speed and fierce shot, he brought back memories of a player no less great than Diego Maradona. The crowd, a sea of white dotted with specks of colour, came alive whenever he received the ball and he kept on pleasuring them and traumatising the Australians.
A 10-minute spell into the first half had the gifted striker looking up towards the brightly lit mosque overlooking the stadium as three superb solo efforts whistled past the post with Coe helplessly eating grass.
There, almost directly above the stadium, a full moon washed its glow across the stadium acting less as a fifth floodlight than as a spotlight tracking the heavenly field this star in the making treaded.
Waves rippled through terraces as the fans sensed the greatness of the performance. Arabic chants, drum beats, hand claps and singing fused together from different corners of the stadium to complement and compliment the spellbinding act.
There was time for the giant Arab coffee pot to make its rounds before the little man kicked off the second half where he had left the first. More tightly marked now, Matar presented his team-mates with the chances to grab glory. He looked one way and then, with the outside of his imperious right boot, sent the ball beautifully onto the foot of one player who fluffed his line (49).
Next, Matar blasted another free kick around the wall but with the ball arrowing into the far corner like a bullet, Coe pulled off a terrific one-handed save to more agonised screams (67). P>His performance was having an intoxicating effect as the 15,000 fans at the Sharjah stadium sang “ole, ole-ole, ole, ole-ole” and swayed their hands in the air from side to side.
With a blind man’s instinct of knowing just where the defender is, Matar then left his marker for dead before setting up another team-mate to strike his effort well wide (73).
Head in the air, the exasperated captain could not help but gesture to the player, proving, if anyone doubted it, he is human.
The clock is ticking down. Still 0-0 and just four minutes left. Matar receives the ball, he turns and shoots just wide. More groans.
“Emirate, Emirate,” they shout and “Whey, hey, hey, hey” translated as “well done, well done, go ahead, go ahead.”
89 minutes. Matar brings down a long cross-field pass on the left hand edge of the box, cuts inside and takes aim. The ball takes a heavenly deflection, spins poetically under the body of Coe and finally, 359 minutes of trying later, Matar’s shot nestles snugly in the corner of the net.
There is a split-second of astonishment and then, suddenly, it is madness. The white sea of supporters substitutes its waves for an explosive tidal wave of jumping. The wind had now dropped but the giant green, white and black striped-UAE flag, hung on the side of the wall spanning the whole length of one side of the ground, shakes as if a hurricane has hit it.
t the final whistle, they run to two men – the players to Matar and the coaches to Jean-Francois Jodar and both are lifted high into the air. The whole team throws their shirts over the flag and the giant wall and into the crowd. Finally before exiting, the players sink to their knees and pray to the ground.
Jodar could not contain his joy or words of praise for his skipper: “He (Matar) is outstanding. Each time we are able to give him the ball and he can do amazing things with it.”
“I have never seen such a player in my life,” said another man, shaking with emotion. “With him anything is possible.”
“I said at half-time, I will never accept it if he doesn’t score today,” said a woman, with the man she had told it nodding his head at its truth. “We are so happy today. We didn’t believe what was going on. It is the first time this has happened to our country.”
Wearing the Emirates’ number 12 shirt – well known as their 12th player and number 1 fan – Khaled, who with his painted face and shaved head leads the chanting from the stands, has entered the press area.
“We sang my poem ‘I’m going to raise our flag, with Emirates in my eyes, in my heart, raise the flag my people…’” said the man with cameras crews buzzing round him. “I am a chef by trade and tonight I’m going to prepare a great feast of biriyani and Jasheed, our local Viagra.”
The final words were left to the 20-year-old showman, who proved that it is possible for the individual to beat the team. “We gave our all for this match. We were careful at first as they had beaten Brazil but once the game began everything changed,” he said under a sign reading ‘smile you are in Sharjah’. “I thought I must score for all the sheiks and all the people.”
With their miracle man, the Emiratis have rediscovered their footballing faith in Sharjah and in hushed tones they can believe in going all the way to the final.