It’s ADVANTAGE to the U.A.E
By Andre Gonzaga

After winning the 18th GCC Cup, the country needs to now invest and focus on a youth programme to further reap benefits

The rapture of celebrations that kicked off after the 72nd minute strike from UAE star Ismail Mattar at the Zayed Sports City can be heard long after that memorable evening in Abu Dhabi at the end of the 18th Gulf Cup. That strike is bound to alter the very face of football in the country as it strives to ride the euphoria of a nation trying to rediscover itself as one of the top in the region.

This was the first time that the UAE had managed to write its name, and the country had to wait for well over three decades after coming close to winning on a couple of occasions.

The Gulf Cup, which has been held regularly since 1970, brings together the national teams of the GCC, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with neighbours Iraq and Yemen. The competition, modelled on the well-known FIFA World Cup format, features two groups of four teams, with the two leading teams in each group proceeding to the knock-out stages.

The UAE’s previous finest footballing moment had come way back in 1990 when they qualified for the FIFA World Cup in Italy. But last month’s win could not have come at better time, more so when one considers that the UAE may have well turned a vital corner after spending more than one and a half decade at the crossroads of wilderness and a general lack of self-belief.

But it is not only people like Ismail Mattar who have erased the doubts. Equally responsible for this turn towards glory are the band of officials heading the UAE Football Association along with the coaching staff led by Frenchman Bruno Metsu and the rest of players for the high doses of professionalism, commitment and sacrifice they have brought along with them. If at all, there was a complete team on the field, one could look no further than the UAE.

Youth development
The UAE rightly deserved what it sought. But it is no time to sit back and relax on the laurels. Rather it is high time to try and take the game to the next level. The success has been there and the taste of success is sweet indeed. And one way of ensuring that this success lives on for the country and its people is to have a solid development programme and proper planning towards a unified coaching strategy for the young, aspiring people.

Of course, the country must celebrate, and they have done so in a very generous manner. There have been ticker-tape celebrations everywhere the team has gone, and the country has come together as one to take part in this one singular joy of having won the cup of regional dominance.

It is also time for the other sports and sporting disciplines to eat off this success. The UAE team surprisingly nudged out strong contenders Qatar and gave way for double celebrations. The sportspeople of the UAE have suddenly come into the belief segment and there can be no stopping or altering this commitment.

It is amazing to see the ripple effect of success in all aspects of UAE sport. Suddenly there is a self-belief in UAE sportspersons that had been hitherto missing. At the end of the Asian Games in Doha at the end of last year, the UAE returned with a haul of 10 medals – something that had never happened in the history of sport in UAE. The ball had been set rolling in 2004 after Shaikh Ahmad Hasher Mohammad Al Maktoum won the country’s first-ever Olympic gold medal.

Perhaps, what has taken UAE sports a step further is the recent introduction of professionalism. Suddenly there is scope for improvement and sportspeople in the country have started believing in their ability to contest against the best on the international stage.

Doha last year was an additional spark to the flame. Ten medals were adequate proof that the recent introduction of professionalism in sport has paid rich dividends. The Gulf Cup success has further endorsed this fact. A sportsman's life is not always an enviable one. Failure is too close and few would tread down this path. So let us nurture this success, for in this the seeds of a rich legacy may have been sown.

Ismail Mattar
Ismail Mattar is by far a charmer on the field. His five goals earned him the Most Valuable Player of the tournament during the 18th Gulf Cup. This is not the first time that the sturdy player from Al Wahda has earned such an award. He was also adjudged the best player of the tournament at the end of the 2003 FIFA World Youth Cup hosted by the UAE.

Ismail Mattar was born into a sports family. All his brothers played for Al Wahda in Abu Dhabi. Khamis, Khalil and Adel played for the UAE national team in the early 1990s. All of them are now retired. His younger brother Yasir, though, is playing for the Al Wahda Youth Under-19 team.

The GCC Cup was not the sole stage for Ismail Mattar to excel. He also scored the solitary goal against Australia during the 2003 FIFA World Youth Cup to take the UAE into a historic quarterfinals during that competition.

Felicitations and rewards
President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan was the first to acknowledge the contribution of the team to the betterment of the sport in the country for future generations. The President instructed that each of the player be given Dh500,000 for winning the Gulf Cup. The reward is besides the special bonuses announced earlier following a streak of wins the UAE registered against Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the knockout stages. In his generosity, Shaikh Khalifa did not forget the technical and administrative staff of the team, members of the UAE Football Association and the Organising Committee as he decreed that they too be given cash rewards.

His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai was among the first to honour the country’s sportsmen with a villa for every player. Shaikh Mohammad also received the players and managers of the team and congratulated them on their impressive victory. “You have made all of us proud and did exactly what we told you, that you must be like lions on the field,” he said.

Shaikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Ras Al Khaimah Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler, was among the others as he awarded Dh4 million to the UAE national football team as a gesture of appreciation. He received the members of the football team in his palace in Al Dhaid.

Al Habtoor grants Dh3 million
Khalaf Al Habtoor of the Al Habtoor Group was spontaneous in his award of Dh3 million to the players of the triumphant team. Al Habtoor invited the players to his residence and handed over the amount to each of them personally.

Future plans
The UAE Football Association has charted out a course for the national team as they ride on their Gulf Cup success and start preparations for this summer’s Asian Cup Finals to be hosted by Vietnam.

The final stage of preparations will consist of an external training camp in Malaysia from June 13 to July 6 under the watchful eyes of their French coach Bruno Metsu. The UAE is scheduled to play four friendly matches in Malaysia during the course of their camp, and all warm-up games are against nations who will be playing in the Asian Cup Finals to be held from July 7 to 29.

The UAE will face China, Indonesia, Iran and Saudi Arabia in the warm-up matches in Malaysia.


17th Gulf Cup 2004:
Semifinals: Oman beat Bahrain 3-2; Qatar beat Kuwait 2-0.
Final: Qatar beat Oman 5-4 on penalties after being tied 1-1 in regulation period.

18th Gulf Cup 2007:
Semifinals: Oman beat Bahrain 1-0; UAE beat Saudi Arabia 1-0.
Final: UAE beat Oman 1-0.


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