Asia 50: The rise and rise of the UAE

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is making serious waves on the footballing landscape, reflected in the 'golden generation's' impact on FourFourTwo's Asia 50 for 2016, as John McAuley explores... 

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Ahmed Khalil stood on the stage at the Kingdom of Dreams in New Delhi, next to Omar Abdulrahman, two of the UAE’s brightest stars, named among Asia’s best three players for 2015.

It marked yet more evidence of the Emirates’ remarkable recent rise, from the rubble of failed World Cup bids and Asian Cup disappointment to genuine contenders for the continent’s biggest prizes; its precious pair comprising the final trio with Zheng Zhi; China’s main man with the lead duo of the UAE’s so-called ‘golden generation’.

Khalil would take the coveted individual award that November night, chosen ahead of Abdulrahman and Zheng, surprised but grateful he had been anointed AFC Asian Player of the Year. It was a first for Khalil and a first for the UAE.

Khalil enjoyed an extraordinary 2015, beginning with four goals at the Asian Cup as the UAE took bronze in Australia – their best performance on foreign soil.

Khalil’s climb has run in tandem to his country’s, his flourishing career intertwined with the escalating reputation of the UAE national team. It has been reciprocal; without one, there would not be the other.

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The Asian player of the year award was deserved, not so much for his talent – Abdulrahman is the more accomplished player - as for the impact Khalil had not just on his country, but on his club, Al Ahli, too.

He enjoyed an extraordinary 2015, beginning with four goals at the Asian Cup as the UAE took bronze in Australia – their best performance on foreign soil.

Khalil would be beaten to the top scorer title by strike partner Ali Mabkhout, who outscored him by one, but the goals would keep on coming as the UAE kept alive their dream of reaching the 2018 World Cup.

UAE are within touching distance of cherished spot at the 2018 World Cup, a spot so many say this generation warrants.

Khalil scored 11 times in qualifying, including in last month’s crucial Group A clash against Palestine, second only to Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al Sahlawi. It has carried the UAE to the third and final stage, to within touching distance of just a second finals appearance, a cherished spot at the global showpiece, a spot so many say this generation warrants.

The penalty against Palestine, casually chipped into the centre of the goal, was yet another example of Khalil’s growing confidence, of a striker whose position as one of the side’s go-to guys at last sits comfortably. It is embraced and, now more often than not, substantiated.

For Ahli, as well, Khalil has evolved and improved, from a regular place on the bench to a regular in the starting line-up to a regular contributor on the pitch. Not only that: he wears the captain’s armband, trusted by coach Cosmin Olaroiu and ever more so by teammates and supporters.

Abdulrahman lit up last year’s Asian Cup and has long been tipped to eventually do the same on the European club scene.

His six goals in Ahli’s run to the Asian Champions League final also played a part in him becoming the continent’s player of 2015. Again, Khalil struck at vital times: the 88th-minute goal against Tractor Sazi that clinched Ahli a first appearance in the knockout stages; the double in the last-16 second leg at Al Ain; the Panenka penalty in the quarter-final second leg against Naft Tehran to confirm a semi-final berth.

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He has morphed into the man for the big occasion, reflected once more by his winner in this month’s title-defining Arabian Gulf League match against Al Ain.

Yet Khalil is not the UAE’s only standout. As the AFC awards portrayed, Abdulrahman is another, even more so in fact, the team’s prized jewel who provides the finesse to Khalil’s forcefulness.

He is the beating heart in both Mahdi Ali’s national side and in his club, Al Ain. Abdulrahman lit up last year’s Asian Cup and has long been tipped to eventually do the same on the European club scene, although that seems less probable by the season.

Likewise, Mabkhout’s clout has grown and subsequently he has publicly declared a desire to move west, but as of yet he remains in the UAE with capital club Al Jazira.

There, he has excelled for the past few seasons, scoring 16 league goals last term and then 22 so far this campaign – including a hat-trick this week – to currently rank second in the goalscoring charts, a domain usually dominated by foreign imports.

But then, Mabkhout led the way at the Asian Cup, striking five times to capture the golden boot.

And so the UAE’s top trio make the top 10 on this year’s Asia 50 list, where they are ably supported by Majed Hassan, the prodigious Ahli midfielder, who should soon reach higher than No.31 in the annual index.

Others, such as Al Ahli winger Ismail Al Hammadi or Al Ain goalkeeper Khalid Essa, could be included in future, as the UAE continue their ascent through the continent and seek to finally make their mark further afield.

Perhaps some will emulate Khalil, the 2008 Asian young player of the year and now its reigning player of the year. As he has shown, the UAE finally possess the talent and tenacity to survive at the top of the Asian game.

But they are not just surviving; they’re thriving.

John McAauley writes for Abu Dhabi-based daily newspaper The National.