When United Arab Emirates coach Mahdi Ali announced his squad for the final two matches of the second round of Asian Zone qualifying – against Palestine and Saudi Arabia in Group A – for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, the presence of Ismaeil Matar on his list of names surprised many. Why? Because the Al-Wahda forward had been absent from the UAE national set-up for well over a year.
The recall of Matar, who has made no fewer than 115 international appearances for his country since earning his first cap in 2003, was regarded as unlikely due to the excellent form of the Emirati attackers already in place. These included Ahmed Khalil, who has scored 11 goals in this current campaign, and Ali Mabkhout, who was the top scorer at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.
Moreover, the 32-year-old’s disappointing record in front of goal this season, which has seen him find the net just four times in 21 club matches, did not suggest that a return to the international fold was imminent.
Why, then, did his coach decide to recall the 2003 FIFA U-20 World Cup adidas Golden Ball recipient? “The matches against Palestine and Saudi Arabia are important and we need players with experience,” explained Ali in an interview with the UAE Football Association’s website prior to the pair of crucial fixtures. “Ismaeil has played in numerous international matches and his presence is currently very important to us – he’s going to be a big help.”
The experienced coach continued: “I called him up because of the skills that he’s shown while playing for Al-Wahda this season. He’s played in several matches as a starter, and even in a cup match that went to extra time. I hope that he’ll continue in the same vein with the national side.”
On 24 March, Matar followed the entire UAE-Palestine encounter from the bench. Five days later, against Saudi Arabia, he was again listed as a substitute, but this time he was given an opportunity to impress, replacing Mabkhout in the 57th minute.
The appearance of the veteran striker, who has taken part in three Asian Cups but missed the most recent continental tournament, sparked an appreciative response from the 30,000 fans in Abu Dhabi, who gave him a minute-long standing ovation.
After putting in a solid performance and creating a number of chances for himself, he earned admiring post-match comments from the watching Diego Maradona and the UAE goalscorer that night, Omar Abdulrahman. “His entrance gave the players a boost and freed up space in midfield. He’s a great footballer, one that everyone wants to play alongside,” said Abdulrahman.
Despite recording a 1-1 draw, the Emirati side did enough to finish second in their group and accompany the Saudis to the third round of the Asian Zone qualifiers. For Matar, who has now participated in four World Cup qualifying campaigns, it is a chance to finally achieve his dream of performing on football’s greatest stage, 13 years after making a mark at the U-20 World Cup.
If the UAE are to book a berth at Russia 2018 and compete in the World Cup for the first time since 1990, Matar’s many years of experience could prove absolutely vital.