The hosts’ remarkable run at the FIFA World Youth Championship finally came to an end at the quarter-final stage in Dubai’s Rashid Stadium on 12 November. Try as they might, Jean-François Jodar’s charges lacked the blend of guile and power required to unlock a well-organised Colombian defensive unit. After securing a very early goal, the Cafeteros simply focused on shutting out Ismail Matar, thereby ensuring they advanced to face Spain in the semi-final. But as a “little team” who gave the world’s elite a run for their money, the Emirates can be justifiably proud of their exploits.
Impatiently awaited by an entire nation for two days, the atmosphere that gripped Dubai’s Rashid Stadium at the kick-off of this match was remarkable. Washed by a sandstorm – or “touz” in Arabic - the city was bathed in an electric white light. Thrown into the equation was an excited crowd squeezed into the ground and thousands more outside, glued to a giant screen. The stage seemed set for a great night of celebration.
As the teams were being presented, the fans reserved their biggest cheer for Ismail Matar, so when the talismanic UAE captain fired off the first shot of the encounter, the pressure-cooker atmosphere was turned up a notch (3’). But in a microcosm of the entire first period, the local hero’s strike was blocked. “We knew all about Matar’s talent, so we decided to mark him very tightly,” revealed Reinaldo Rueda at the end of the match. The Emirates prodded and probed, but the Colombians stood firm.
And having weathered the storm, the South Americans set about wreaking havoc of their own, breaking into their opponents’ half with seemingly effortless fluidity. First, Avimiled Rivas struck a free kick that Ismail Rabee was grateful to smother (7’). Their very next counter was capped by an unstoppable angled shot from Victor Montano after a searching pass from Abel Aguilar. The home side were behind (1-0, 14’).
The Emirates kept getting bogged down in the Colombian defence and after yet another of their attacks fizzled out, the Colombians launched a break through Edixon Perea down the right, but his fine shot was turned away for a corner by Rabee (30’). Despite their apparent attacking impotence, Jodar’s side stuck admirably at their task, but without success. Up in the stands, the posse of fifty or so Colombian fans wore smiles as wide as their sombreros.
After the break, the home team looked no nearer to cracking the redoubtable South American rearguard, while Reinaldo Rueda’s protégés were simply content to keep possession and wait for opportunities on the breakaway. On one such sortie, Perea came within inches of doubling the Colombian tally, but failed to beat the keeper Rabee in their one-on-one (58’).
Matar was still managing to display plenty of class, particularly when he executed a masterful flick and volley combination, but his effort sailed narrowly over the bar (63’). He was not quite the same player as against Australia, however. “He is a man, not a machine. He has played in every international for the last few months. That’s why he wasn’t 100%,” Jodar explained after the game. The unruffled Cafeteros had a firm grip on the tie which they were not about to relinquish, despite the incessant efforts of the Emirates forwards.
Jodar declared himself bitterly disappointed after the defeat, but was effusive in his admiration for his troops. “We must hold our hands up and admit that the Colombians were better than us technically. Also, in what was our fifth match, we lacked the power needed to trouble them. But this great event will live long in my memory, as I never expected to reach the last sixteen when I took charge of the team.”
The impassive Rueda, meanwhile, was not letting himself get carried away with his side’s performance. “It’s very positive for Colombian football, for the work we’ve been doing with the youngsters for years. The United Arab Emirates have a fine team and deserve to be congratulated.” As for his semi-final opponents, the Colombian coach was scarcely more loquacious. “We know the Spanish well. They are physically very strong and a good team. We are going to study their game and do the best we can.”