When the referee blew his whistle to mark the end of United Arab Emirates' first group game against Malawi, the entire UAE squad celebrated as one. Their joy was understandable. The 2-0 win against the Africans was the Asian side's first three-point haul in the competition and came some 28 years after their one and only appearance in the finals at Italy 1981, when they lost heavily to Sudan and Brazil and drew with Germany.
Nigeria 2009 looks set to be an altogether more rewarding experience thanks to the goalscoring exploits of Marwan al Saffar and Mohammad Sebil, the architects of their victory over the Malawians. Having given the Asian representatives a fine chance of reaching the Round of 16, the duo, who are also team-mates at Dubai club Al-Nasr, spoke to FIFA.com about Monday's win and the prospects for the Emiratis at Nigeria 2009.
Spain have some great players. We watched the first half of their game against the States and they came back with just ten men, which is not easy at all.
Of the two, Marwan is the more senior member of the side. The defender pulled on the captain's armband for the Malawi match in the absence of Haddaf, who was serving a one-match suspension carried over from the Asian qualifying competition. "It was a shame Haddaf couldn't play, but we managed to keep Malawi at bay in the first half," says Marwan, the team's vice-captain, who clearly enjoyed stepping up in rank for the day.
The stand-in skipper led by example, putting his side in front with a swerving long-range free-kick that caught Malawi keeper Cuthbert Seengwa off guard. "That wasn't just my goal. It was the whole team's. Without their work, I wouldn't have been able to do anything," he explains modestly. "The coach has been asking me to practice shooting from distance in training. And on that occasion things worked out just right."
Less of a natural in front of the microphone, fellow scorer Mohammad has nevertheless proved that he is a forceful presence on the field of play. After spending much of Monday's game demanding better service from his team-mates, he kept his head late on to catch the unfortunate Seengwa off his line with a magnificent strike from virtually the halfway-line.
"I just thought I'd have a go," explains the shy sharpshooter. "I saw the goalkeeper outside his area and let fly without even thinking. You have to make the most of chances like that. You have to be quick. And I just want to mention the support the fans here have given us," continues Mohammad, expressing his appreciation for the backing UAE have received from the people of Kano. "Lots of them have been waving our flags and it makes the whole team very proud. We feel right at home here."
After celebrating their win the heroes of the hour then settled down to watch Spain, their next opponents in Group E, get the better of USA. "Spain are the strongest team (in the group)," says an admiring Marwan. "They have some great players. We watched the first half of their game against the States and they came back with just ten men, which is not easy at all."
Yet, whatever happens against the Spanish, Marwan and Co are grateful just to be in Nigeria. "We feel very fortunate to be here, with the best sides in the world, and we want to go on and reach the last 16. It's a dream." And if the duo keep scoring spectacular goals, that dream will surely continue.