Why Asia should’ve named UAE’s Mahdi Ali football coach of the year

The award eventually went to Australia's football coach Ange Postecoglou

Graham Ruthven
Graham Ruthven - Special to Al Arabiya News
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It’s awards season, when football’s great and good shine their shoes and brush their hair for a walk down the red carpet. It’s not quite the Oscars or Cannes, but individual prestige is the prize at this time of year, rather than the reward of teamwork offered at the end of the season.

And Asian football, just like the rest of the global game, knows how to throw a party.

At a glitzy ceremony in Gurgaon, near New Delhi the Asian Football Confederation handed out its annual awards, with the United Arab Emirates’ Ahmed Khalil named men’s player of the year, South Korean international Son Heung-min crowned international player of the year and Australia midfielder Massimo Luongo anointed the best player in January’s Asian Cup.

Socceroos head coach Ange Postecoglou was handed the coach of the year award, after leading his team to Asian Cup glory on home soil too. But in that particular case, the wrong decision was made. Mahdi Ali was also named on the AFC’s three-man shortlist for the award after a stellar year in charge of the UAE national team. He, in the truest interpretation of the term, was Asian football’s coach of 2015.

Postecoglou enjoyed a glittering year, taking Australia to their first ever Asian Cup title. The Socceroos success was all the more impressive given the pressure weighted on them as hosts. However, such achievements are somewhat mitigated by the quality of the players at Postecoglou’s disposal, and the stature of his team. Australia were expected to challenge, and that’s what they did.

“Australian football is taking significant steps forward and our coaches are a huge part of that,” he said upon his acceptance of the award. But how do the Socceroos’ strides forward compare with that made by Ali’s side this year?

What Ali did with the UAE national team in 2015 was far more surprising. Whilst Emirati football is no longer the backwater it perhaps was once regarded, it’s fair to see that Asian football sat up and took note of the UAE’s performance at the Asian Cup earlier this season, as they finished in third place.

They saw off Qatar and Bahrain in the group stage, before pulling off the shock result of the competition in the quarter-finals - beating Asian football heavyweights Japan in a penalty shootout. The hit the wall against eventual winners Australia in the semi-finals, before edging Iraq in the third-place play-off game - capping what was a landmark tournament for football in the United Arab Emirates.

It was just the UAE’s results that caught the eye, though, but the manner of their performances too. Under Ali the Emirati national team have become Asian football’s most inherently dynamic and entertaining international side, providing the brightest spark in January’s continental competition. Their rise has been exhilarating, and Ali must be considered a vanguard of Asian football’s current coaching crop.

Their Asian Cup success down under wasn’t a one-off either, with the UAE also enjoying a successful World Cup qualification campaign. Ali has led his side to four wins, one draw and just one defeat from six qualifiers in 2015, taking them to second place in Group A - just three points behind leaders Saudi Arabia. Of 15 fixtures in total, the UAE have won 10 - given them one of the best winning ratios in Asian football.

Ali has benefited from the emergence of a golden generation, with the likes of Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout and Hamdan Al-Kamali among the best the country has ever produced. However, he is charged with forging them into a coherent team unit, somehow finding a way to target and aim so much raw talent in the same direction. 2015 was the year it came together.

Of course, in a team sport like football, individual awards are the consequence of personal interpretation. Some may regard Postecoglou’s achievements with Australia to outweigh that of Ali with the UAE - and the same goes for Norio Sasaki of the Japanese women’s side. This is the fundamental flaw with these kind of accolades.

But if the Asian Football Confederation coach of the year award is handed out to the coach who has performed up and beyond all reasonable expectations, the Ali should have been the outstanding candidate. He, more than anyone else, made Asian football take note this year. He should have at least had a trophy to lift.

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