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Feb 3, 2013

UAE follow Saudi Arabia's legacy

For the past 20 years or so, the title of the 'best in west Asia' has belonged to Saudi Arabia. Four successive appearances at the World Cup, six out of seven finals of the Asian Cup and club success in the Asian Champions League - The Sons of the Desert, the Green Falcons, whatever you want to call them, had the consistency that others lacked.

Now, that title is up for grabs. And while Iran would expect to automatically step into first place, United Arab Emirates are staking their claim with the best generation of young talent to come out of the country, possibly ever.

The signs have been there for a while: Under-19 Asian Champions in 2008, quarter-finalists at the Under-20 World Cup in 2009, silver at the 2010 Asian Games and a good showing by the Under-23 team at the 2012 Olympics. How well these youngsters can perform now they are making the step up to the senior side is one of the hot topics in Asian football.

The first real test came in January's Gulf Cup and the answers were convincing. It started with a delightful 3-1 defeat of a Qatar team still in with a chance of qualification for the 2014 World Cup by a starting XI all 25 or under. It ended with a win over Iraq in the final. That regional tournament, an eight-team biennial affair, saw the Saudis dumped out at the group stage in a failure that spelled the end of Frank Rijkaard. Had he been watching as a neutral, the Dutchman would surely have enjoyed the thrilling football played.

It was a style familiar to Olympic fans. At the 2012 games, UAE didn't perhaps win as many points as their play deserved but they won friends aplenty in Manchester, London and Coventry with their movement, passing, technique, eye for flair and sheer joy of expressing themselves in two of the most famous football stages in the world.

Joy turned to delirium in the first half at Old Trafford when Ismail Matar shocked the highly fancied Uruguayans by giving his team a first-half lead. Matar has been the team's talisman for the best part of a decade and knows a thing or two about the pros and cons of prodigy status. He was the player of the tournament at the 2003 World Youth Championship, following in the footsteps of Diego Maradona though unable to match the Argentine in leaving his home continent for Europe. He was just too important to his club.

Now 29, his veteran status is more a reflection of the age of others around him than his own advancing years. His goal in Manchester came thanks to a wonderful through-ball from Omar Abdulrahman, the new star of the team, the country, the region and the continent. The 21 year-old was the Gulf Cup's Most Valuable Player and is slowly donning Matar's mantle. His bushy hairstyle catches the eye at first but all attention is soon focused on what is going on at the opposite end. It was no coincidence that as the final whistle sounded against Uruguay and Team GB, he swapped shirts with the stars of both - Luis Suarez and Ryan Giggs.

He could be facing them again pretty soon as a move to Europe is a matter of when and where rather than if. In 2009 Espanyol tried to land the player, while Manchester City's contract was turned down last summer. Hamburg, Lyon and Liverpool are fully aware of his potential as surely are many others.

The deal will be big in more ways than one. UAE players rarely play overseas, a common trait in West Asia, with Iran a notable exception. Defender Hamdan Al Kamali spent six months with Lyon last year but didn't make an appearance and is now in Abu Dhabi. Put it down to a satisfaction with local star status and salaries, a lack of ambition and a plethora of club presidents reluctant to allow a departure - there are more theories held than deals done - but now is the time for UAE's brightest young stars to try their luck in Europe.

Jorvan Vieira led Iraq to the 2007 Asian Cup and after a coaching spell in the UAE, believes that Abdulrahman needs to leave. The Brazilian recommends France or Portugal as a great place to start, saying that the Premier League and Germany is too early. "Spain? Could be, but he would not be playing in the first team. If I was a coach in Spain, I would accept him, but couldn't put him in my first XI: slowly, gradually, the second team. But not immediately in the Premier League."

Many would disagree. Abdulrahman is already better than that and if the midfielder is the symbol of the new team, there are more. Ahmed Khalil, whose elder brother once thought he signed for a French team in 2008 before being forced to return home, and Ali Mabkhout are also highly-rated with years ahead of them.

Yet, there have been talented UAE teams before. In 1990, the team made it to the World Cup. In 2007, inspired by Matar, they won the Gulf Cup, but these were isolated islands of success surrounded by seas of nothing much. Recent Asian Cups have been disappointing and the team did not even reach the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup, losing five out of six games in the penultimate stage and finishing below Kuwait and Lebanon.

That was the turning point. If ever there was a reason to give more of the youngsters a push to the senior level, that was it, and the man to do it was Mahdi Ali. The appointment of cap-wearing, Arsene Wenger-admiring Ali was a major step. He took over the Under-19 team in 2008 and delivered the Asian title and he has been with the youngsters ever since.

"Mahdi Ali, off the field, he is your father, brother, he will sit with us and we play cards, we joke. But on the field, he is very serious and I am scared of him on the field," national team star Mohamed Ahmed said.

Ali wants to be there for the long haul and, on the surface at least, has the backing of an increasingly far-seeing UAE FA, delighted by the current crop of talent and desperate to ensure that the talent supply doesn't dry up. In a barren region in youth development terms - though there are signs this is changing - UAE is becoming a relative oasis in nurturing the grassroots.

Qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup starts next week in Vietnam. That shouldn't be a problem but it is time to make a mark on the continental competition and reach the latter stages. That will set the team up nicely for the 2018 World Cup. This is the real target, a second appearance on the global stage coming at a time when the present crop of stars should be at their peak with a few already active in Europe and the local league continuing its development to become one of Asia's best.

There is little doubt that this young UAE team is going to become the best the country has ever had and potentially the best in West Asia. The real question is whether it is a one-off golden generation or the start of a Saudi Arabia-esque period of success.

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