United Arab Emirates coach Mahdi Ali feels his team is worthy of a place in the 2018 World Cup, telling a packed press conference ahead of their clash with Malaysia the Emirati are reaping the rewards of long-term investments in grassroots football…
UAE have only featured once in the pinnacle of football – at the 1990 edition in Italy – and Ali is hoping he is the man to take them there once again.
Ali missed the trip to Italy during his playing days due to injury and the former Al-Ahli midfielder is now determined to be in the dugout on football’s biggest stage.
Just as the Malaysian side is now, the UAE national team was enduring some dark days in the early 2000s, but that was when the foundations towards a better future were laid.
In 2008, UAE won the AFC Under-19 championship for the first time. The following year, the same team reached the last eight of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup before claiming the Gulf Cup of Nations Under-23 title in 2010.
The under-23 side also qualified for the 2012 London Olympics for the first time.
As for the senior side, UAE are now the fifth ranked Asian side behind Iran, South Korea, Japan and Australia.
UAE finished third – their first time on the podium – at the 2015 Asian Cup, knocking out World Cup regulars Japan in the quarter-finals.
“What we see today is the fruits of UAE investing a lot into the grassroots. If you invest, you will get results. It could apply to any team,” Ali said.
“I have been with some of these players since 2004 … some even longer, at either club or country. We took a look at the top four teams in Asia to see what it took to compete with them.
“Everyone here is eager to play in the World Cup ... we deserve to be there. I know these players very well. They will not buckle under pressure. Everyone knows their role in achieving our dreams.”
The top 12 teams from the eight groups move into the World Cup’s final qualifying round, where four tickets to the event are available. There is also a final qualifying stage for one other team.
The Emiratis are second in Group A, three points behind Saudi Arabia, who visit Timor Leste on Tuesday. Ali’s side is expected to have few troubles collecting three points against struggling Malaysia at the Shah Alam Stadium on the same night.
UAE enjoyed an emphatic, record-breaking 10-0 win over Harimau Malaya in the earlier tie.
While UAE are enjoying their football at the moment, the Malaysian caretaker coach Ong Kim Swee hinted at his plans for the national team next year if he was given the role on a permanent basis.
“We need a short-term and long-term plan. I don’t agree in disbanding the team. We need to keep playing international football because the exposure provides experience,” said Ong.
“We need a transition period where new young players are gradually introduced into the team. We have to be realistic in what we want to achieve next year. You can’t expect immediate results.”
The Football Association of Malaysia are expected to name their fulltime coach by the end of the year. Ong previously told FourFourTwo being the caretaker coach offered him a chance to audition for the job.
Since Dollah Salleh resigned in September, Ong steadied the ship in matches against Saudi Arabia, Laos and Timor Leste – recording their first two wins of 2015 in the latter two fixtures – but were left to rue a series of costly defensive errors in last week’s 6-0 loss to Palestine.