Almost three days since the United Arab Emirates defeated Australia in the Round of Sixteen of the FIFA World Youth Championship UAE 2003, the country is still in a state of shock and celebration. The media frenzy surrounding the nation’s youth team rages on with reports, interviews, and replays of “the” match in the local media. In the eye of the storm, team coach Jean-François Jodar is striving to keep his feet, and those of his players, firmly on the ground ahead of the quarter-final against Colombia.
Jodar is a worrier by nature, or cautious to say the very least. While he fully appreciates the significance of his team’s performance against Australia, he cannot help but turn his thoughts to the potential disappointment which lies ahead. “It is a proud achievement to reach the quarter-finals, but I’m a little worried that we have built people’s hopes up. I wouldn’t want to let them down. Will we have recovered physically? Will we be able to regain the same level of intensity against Colombia after coming down from the last victory?”, asked the pensive coach after his team’s final training session at Dubai’s Rashid Stadium on the eve of the match.
Yet the Frenchman is well aware that the victory over the Young Socceroos owed nothing to chance. “I honestly was not surprised by the result against Australia. We were well organised and we knew that if we kept our composure the chances would come. We watched them closely in the first round and said to ourselves ‘there is no reason why we can’t do to Australia what they did to Brazil’,” he explained with a smile.
The talented Matar
Moreover, he admits to being surprised by the physical endurance of his players, who gave their all from the first minute to the last. The rest, however, was due to clever tactics; give the Aussies as little room as possible, knowing how they like to work the flanks, and stifle them in the midfield. And make the most of the talents of Ismail Matar. “The Australians are excellent in all aspects of the game, but they don’t have a player who is capable of changing the course of a match. We, on the other hand, may not have their potential, but we do have one exceptional player.”
The anxious Jodar currently has two causes for concern; the reaction of his players after their remarkable win, and Colombia. On the former, Jodar has done everything possible to avoid over-confidence. The media attention and celebrations may be inescapable (“it is only to be expected, and it teaches you not to get distracted,” he says somewhat disillusioned), but he has drawn on his years of experience as a coach to keep his players calm.
We have tried to remain calm and to transmit that to the players, but there is definitely some excitement in the camp. I just keep reminding them that we still don’t look like finalist material,” he says of his protégés. Having said that, even he has allowed himself a little more optimism that normal in light of the recent success. “Anything can happen in a game of football. After all, the Colombians must be exhausted after their four matches!”
Adapting to face Colombia
The Cafeteros have been scrutinised from every angle. Jodar is aware of their quality but has already formulated his plan of attack. “The Colombians are certainly superior to Australia in terms of creativity, which worries me. They are also very strong in attack, especially Edixon Perea, Victor Montano and Erwin Carrillo. They are sharp and play a short passing game through the middle, a style which we have not come up against before. The question is whether we can manage to adapt to their style.” The strategy, therefore, will be to position certain players to nullify the strong technical and attacking qualities of the South Americans.
The necessary modifications may seem insignificant, but that is the hallmark of a good coach. And it was certainly the difference between defeat and victory for the Emirates against Australia. “They were just minor adjustments,” he admits modestly. “I played Ali Sultan up front, which helped us defensively in the air, where the Australians are very strong. And I moved Matar and Shehab back to give us a flat unit of four as our first line of defence.” The Colombia match will be a different story, but the French coach will not be revealing his cards just yet.
They have already made history by reaching the quarter-finals, but this Emirates team would dearly love to recreate the scenes of jubilation which followed their previous victory. Indeed, the young players may not yet full appreciate the impact of their success. “The players saw the celebrations in the street after the win against Australia. That kind of thing does not happen very often in this country. I think they were a little shocked to see how much passion they had inspired. The following morning I told them ‘Do you realise what you have achieved?’ just to make sure they knew!”, the Frenchman beams.
One can only imagine the scenes of ecstasy if the home side overcome Colombia and clinch a place in the semi-finals. Jodar, unsurprisingly, takes a different, more cautious perspective: “If we lose, I hope my players and the supporters will not be too disappointed, despite their high hopes. They have to remember the good moments.”