Van Marwijk: UAE going for gold at the Arab Cup

  • UAE coach Bert van Marwijk speaks ahead of the FIFA Arab Cup Qatar 2021™

  • The veteran coach led the Netherlands to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ Final

  • He assesses UAE’s current position ahead of kicking off their campaign in Qatar

Bert van Marwijk knows all about the wonders of tournament football. After all, the Dutchman competed on the biggest stage – and in the biggest match – of them all, and still describes leading his native country to the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final as “my best experience in football”.

Highlights in South Africa were many and varied – “this could be a very long discussion” he told, laughing – but the Netherlands’ famous, come-from-behind quarter-final win over Brazil stands out. “That’s a game I can never forget because, from the first second, the Brazilians seemed two times bigger and two times faster than us. I remember telling Frank de Boer, my assistant, ‘I’ll be happy if we get to half-time losing just 1-0’.”

They did, of course, and emerged as a different team in the second half to produce a stirring, Wesley Sneijder-inspired comeback. The memories – and lessons - endure for their coach, who reflected: “As a coach, I stress to my players about ‘being themselves’. But that’s easy to say and not so easy to do, especially at these big tournaments. We saw how tough it can be in that first half.”

Bert van Marwijk.

The challenge of enabling his players to shine is one that Van Marwijk relishes nonetheless, and experiences from 2010 and two decades-plus of top-level coaching will shape his approach to the upcoming FIFA Arab Cup.

His UAE side arrive at the tournament fresh from a recent 1-0 win in Lebanon that revived their FIFA World Cup qualifying hopes and, as the 69-year-old explained, they kick off in Qatar tomorrow with the trophy firmly in their sights. It’s been a busy time for you and your team lately, with four huge World Cup qualifiers across October and November. Is the FIFA Arab Cup a welcome challenge given that backdrop? Bert van Marwijk: I think it’s good for us because we’re still in the middle of developing a team. It’s also good for the players who’ll be competing because it’s in the country, and the stadiums, where the World Cup will take place next year. That makes it a very good test for them. I already had the experience of a tournament in Qatar last year (at the Gulf Cup) and I know that the weather conditions will be good and that the standard of the stadiums and pitches is very high. That’s important. We’ve just come from playing a qualifier on a pitch that was tough to play good football on, and it changes the game.

Although it was a tough pitch in Lebanon, you came away with a vital result by winning 1-0. How important has that been, not just for your World Cup chances but for the team’s morale ahead of the Arab Cup? It was a very special game in that respect. If we’d lost, our chances would have been very slim. Everyone was extra nervous because of that - we all realised how big this game was. Winning it changed everything and lifted everyone. We had been very unlucky at the beginning of this stage of qualifying; in the first few games the statistics were all in our advantage, but we missed a lot of chances. I feel like we lost four points that should have been ours. That was why that game in Lebanon became so big, and getting the result we needed has given everyone a lift. The players can see that we have a real chance again.

UAE’s FIFA Arab Cup fixtures

  • 30.11: UAE-Syria

  • 03.12: Mauritania-UAE

  • 06.12: Tunisia-UAE

You mention those missed opportunities that have cost you at times. Is chance-conversion something you’ve been focusing on with your players? I don’t think it’s easy to work on and improve those things. When you talk about goals, most of the time you talk about strikers. And having worked with so many top strikers, I can say that there’s always a period when they don’t score. What I’ve learned is that the best way to deal with it is actually not to talk about it. Strikers don’t like hearing words from their coach about missed chances! The best thing is to leave them alone, let them do their job for the team and, in time, the goals will come. I always say: every team needs weapons, whether that’s very fast players, very big players, very creative players or great scorers. And although I think we have a good team with UAE, we know that when we lose some of our main weapons that we have a problem and that the level of the team goes down. That’s only natural because UAE is country where only 7000 people play football, and it’s a challenge we need to overcome.

Bert van Marwijk.

You’ve been working in the AFC region for several years now, having coached Saudi Arabia before you moved on to Australia and now UAE. What has that experience been like for you? It has been a good experience. The weather can be very hot! (laughs) But the experience of working within a dressing room is the same across the world. I don’t experience many differences to what I found in Europe. Things like culture and temperature might be different but those moments – standing in the dressing room, at the side of the pitch – are the same, and those are the moments I enjoy most.

What’s your main motivation ahead of the Arab Cup: is it more about developing the team than challenging for the trophy? No - if you go, you want to win. That will not be easy because there are strong teams here, higher in the World Ranking than us. So it’s a big challenge. But I’m taking my strongest team. And although it will be a great learning experience, and good preparation for those last four games in [World Cup] qualifying, we go – as we always do – with the aim of winning every game.