United Arab Emirates star Ismail Matar, still just 25, has had heavy pressure on his shoulders from an early age. After becoming the only player from his country (and only the second from Asia) to win an adidas Golden Ball at a men's FIFA finals (the FIFA U-20 World Cup UAE 2003), the Emirati playmaker has gone on to achieve idol's status in his homeland.
He first burst on to the global scene when he thrust a talented UAE side to the last eight of the U-20 finals five years ago. It was the first time a team from the Middle Eastern nation had managed to reach the knockout rounds at a world finals.
Matar looked every inch the star of a tournament which also included the likes of Spain's Andres Iniesta and Javier Mascherano of Argentina. His moment of crowning glory came when he orchestrated a last-16 win over Australia, scoring in the 89th minute to put the hosts into the quarter-finals.
A hero in the making
On that steamy December evening in the desert outpost of Sharjah, Matar suddenly became the most famous footballing personality in UAE's history. "He is outstanding. Each time we give him the ball he can do amazing things with it," said then coach Jean Francois Jodar of France, while fans swooned over their new hero.
"I have never seen such a player in my life," said one supporter, shaking with emotion outside the Al-Sharjah stadium. "With him anything is possible."
A spot in the semi-finals proved a hurdle too steep for Matar and United Arab Emirates, as a 1-0 loss to an Edixon Perea-led Colombia put them out.
Already a member of the senior national team as a teenager, Ismail went on to lead the UAE to unheard-of glories again in 2007, four years after his first brush with greatness. He had a firm hand in their first and only international crown: the Gulf Cup 2007.
Matar was the driving force behind the team's success,
scoring the winner in the semi-final against Saudi Arabia and in
the final against Oman. He scored five goals in five games, in
total, finishing as the tournament's top scorer and being voted
its best player.
Then Saudi coach Carlos Bakita could not contain his praise for Matar after the Al Wahda man swooped to score the winner against his charges in the last four. "He surprised my players. ," he gushed.
South Africa sights
Although he has had his low points, with form occasionally dipping due to the weight of expectation, Matar is the man being charged with leading the UAE to their first FIFA World Cup™ finals since their debut at Italy 1990.
The pressure is once again on the playmaker, who was short-listed for the AFC Asian Player of the Year award in 2006. With United Arab Emirates currently leading their qualifying group for South Africa 2010, Matar's heroics are continuing unabated as the Gulf side sit two points ahead of regional giants Iran after two rounds of play.
Although the lifelong Al Wahda player has yet to score in the campaign, he has made a mark in the creator's positon, playing every minute of the victory over Kuwait and the draw with Syria. "I think the UAE can count on the future," Matar said of the current senior team with roots in the youth side he led in 2003. " ."
United Arab Emirates are coached by Bruno Metsu, who knows a
thing or two about reaching the FIFA World Cup. The Frenchman
spurred Senegal to their first-ever world finals in the Far East in
2002, where they beat France and reached the quarter-finals.
"He is obviously a tremendous talent," Metsu recently said of Matar. "But if we are to reach the next step we must come together as a team."