When the United Arab Emirates finished in third place at last year’s Asian Cup in Australia, it was taken as a bronzed-triumph from a golden generation. The country’s greatest ever crop of players had broken into the continent’s elite by seeing off Japan in the quarter-finals.
But the UAE’s success was regarded, in some quarters, as something of a fluke. It was described as a once in a lifetime achievement, with the country producing a group of players they could never realistically hope to match again. That assumption might have been some way off the mark, though.
In fact, judging by the UAE’s performance in the Under 23 Asian Cup - which kicked off in Qatar last week - Emirati football is in poor health, and well-placed to secure their place in the top-tier of the international game. The golden generation might run deeper than just coach Mahdi Ali’s team.
By claiming a 1-0 win over Australia in their opening group game, the UAE put down a marker for the rest of the tournament. Abdullah Mesfer’s side were dominated in the possession stakes, as the Olyroos pressed and probed around the edge of the box, but they were rarely troubled before an own goal winner proved the difference.
Just like at last year’s Asian Cup, the UAE are marking themselves out as something of a surprise package. Ignorance over football in the Gulf still persists, but the Emirati national team - from the senior side all the way down to the Under 23 team - are proving such lazy assumptions wrong.
Stylistically, the UAE’s senior team and Under 23 side are fundamentally different. In Australia, Ali’s outfit were the Asian Cup’s most enthralling team, with the likes of Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout shining as the country’s attacking talismen. The Emirati game has since garnered a reputation for itself as a stronghold of dynamic, free-flowing football.
The Under-23 team don’t quite conform to that philosophical identity, however. Against Australia Mesfer’s team were well-organized and properly drilled, but not especially adventurous. The win was earned on the basis of their defensive solidity, rather than their attacking ambition, relying on their tactical nous and positional discipline to pull off a win.
Sunday’s goalless draw against Jordan demonstrated that, in terms of their technical progress, the UAE’s Under 23 team is still in the early stages of development. But success at the very top of the international game will only boost Emirati football’s stature, as the sport opens its eyes to what the Gulf can offer.
Mesfer’s side now face a crunch match against Vietnam on Wednesday to decide whether or not they will make passage into the tournament’s quarter-finals. Japan, Qatar and reigning champions Iran have already secured their places, and now the UAE can join the continental elite in the final eight with a victory over Group D’s whipping boys. The fixture will be a test of this crop’s nerve, providing a gauge as to whether they are good enough to make the step-up to the senior team.
Of course, some will argue that at Under 23 level results aren’t quite as significant as they are at senior standard. At this caliber, football is about providing a grounding for the future rather than cultivating a victory-at-all-costs mentality, placing an emphasis on technical development and tactical education.
Yet the UAE national team - at all levels of the game - must be conscious of how results will change the country’s standing in the sport. A good performance at this month’s Under 23 Asian Cup would underline the progress Emirati football is making, and how the Gulf nation is altering the natural order of the sport.
A good showing at this tournament would also allow the UAE to build on their impressive showing at the 2012 Olympics, qualifying for the competition in Rio de Janeiro later this year. With four years of international success behind them, the Emirati national team could no longer be denounced as little more than a golden generation.