Friday night’s Gulf Cup final between UAE and Iraq will live long in the memory of coach Mehdi Ali and his players. Knocking in their second goal in extra-time to seal a thrilling 2-1 victory, UAE showed that they have become a force to be reckoned with on the international stage.
UAE owe much their 47-year-old coach. Having led the country’s youth side to glory at the AFC U-19 Championship in 2008, Mehdi Ali prepared the same squad of players for contention at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2009 and the 2012 Olympic Football Tournament in London. His sterling work was rewarded with his appointment as senior national coach and on Friday he repaid that faith by bringing home the UAE’s second Gulf Cup.
The UAE’s national team first got their hands on the trophy back in 2007, when they were tournament hosts, but their achievement this time round was if anything more impressive. Maintaining an excellent standard of play throughout, three straight group stage victories over Qatar, hosts Bahrain and Oman teed them up for a semi-final clash with title-holders Kuwait, who they beat 1-0.
Emirati fans packed the stands for the final, and their commitment was rewarded when Player of the Tournament Omar Abdel Rahman put UAE ahead after a silky solo run, but a battling Iraq refused to go down without a fight and Younis Mahmoud’s equaliser forced the contest into extra time. The tension was not broken until the 107th minute, when substitute Ismail Al Hammadi fired in the winner to claim the title for his team.
Iraq’s cup campaign was just as dazzling as their fellow-finalists. After beating Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen in the group they overcame hosts Bahrain in a nerve-jangling semi-final penalty shoot-out, only to come up against UAE in the finals.
Hakeem Shaker’s men may have lost out this time but the future looks bright for Iraq. Eight members of the current national team also helped Iraq qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 and the experience they have gained in Bahrain is sure to prove invaluable when they compete for international glory next June.
The best of the rest
Though they will be disappointed not to have reprised their achievements of 2010, title-holders Kuwait put on a strong showing. Their 6-1 demolition of Bahrain in the playoff to claim third place will have pleased coach Goran Tufegdzic, who put his faith in a young and inexperienced side.
Hosts Bahrain have never won a Gulf Cup but Gabriel Calderon managed to inspire them to reach the semi-finals despite only taking over as coach two months before the start of the tournament.
The biggest disappointment of all must be Saudi Arabia, who failed to make it past the group stages despite reaching the final in the previous two editions. The three-time Gulf Cup winners’ performance was well below standard, a solitary victory over Yemen scant compensation for losses to both Iraq and Kuwait, and coach Frank Rijkaard paid the price, being dismissed on the team’s return home.
Qatar’s manager Paulo Autori suffered the same fate as the former Barcelona coach. The Brazilian's contract was terminated after his side’s Gulf Cup failure came on the back of a disappointing recent performance in the fourth round of Asian qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014.
2009 Gulf Cup champions Oman fared little better, Paul Le Guen’s outfit making an early exit without a single group stage win to their name, while Yemen went home with only three successive defeats to look back on.
2 – While the UAE won their second Gulf Cup title, Iraq became runners-up for the second time in their history, a position they last achieved in 1976 and their best finish since they returned to cup contention in 2004. The 2013 tournament was also the second time Kuwait had claimed bronze after their third place debut back in 2002.
“I’m delighted to be here with this team and these players after starting my journey with this generation back in 2007 and achieving so much with them. I hope I can contribute to more titles in the future,” UAE defender Hamdan Al Kamali