A crucial Matar

The UAE’s number one footballer chats with City Times about winning the Gulf Cup, the possibility of playing in Europe and the country’s rocky World Cup qualifying campaign

By Adam Zacharias (adam@khaleejtimes.com)

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Published: Tue 17 Mar 2009, 8:28 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:43 PM

LOCAL FOOTBALLING LEGEND Ismail Matar is best known for his heroics in the 2007 Gulf Cup final, when his winning goal against Oman gave the UAE national team its first ever trophy.

The whole country burst out onto the streets to celebrate this momentous victory, with proud Emiratis revelling in the occasion by dancing, waving flags and honking their car horns.

“It was a great moment for us, when you make your name for your country and people think you’re a good team,” Matar told City Times at the Adidas store in Festival City, where last week he renewed his partnership with the sportswear giant.

“We got an award, but the most important thing was how people felt. When people talk now about the 2007 Gulf Cup and how the players made the UAE happy, it’s great for us.”

Matar also finished the tournament’s top scorer with five goals in as many games, and was also named its most valuable player. The attacking midfielder had previously been named the best player at the World Youth Cup in 2003.

Soon the 24-year-old, who plays for Al Wahda in Abu Dhabi, began drawing admiring glances from abroad – with the chairman of Brazilian side Vasco da Gama even comparing him to footballing great Romario.

The interest from foreign clubs has sustained to this day – so much so that Matar’s manager Josef Hickersberger recently insisted he should be allowed to move to Europe for the benefit of the national team.

Matar’s dream is to play in the Spanish league, where he believes the best footballers in the world play and where both the crowds and the players enjoy their football.

“For me, it’s difficult to play somewhere like Real Madrid or Barcelona,” he warned, adding that he would more realistically like to sign for a team such as Real Mallorca, Espanol or Osasuna.

“I hope to be the first player (from the UAE) to play in Europe – this is my target,” the Abu Dhabi native said, although he insisted that he was still contracted to Al Wahda for the time being.

So, if Matar would like to follow in the footsteps of luminaries such as David Beckham, is he hungry for the accompanying fame and fortune enjoyed by football’s top names?

“I play football because I love to play football,” he replied. “It’s not about the money. If you work hard and show yourself you will get everything you want – with any sport.”

He also stressed the importance of footballers setting an example both on and off the field, and pointed to Pele as a man who embodied this during and after his footballing career.

At present though, Matar is focused on helping the UAE reach the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa. The national side are currently languishing bottom of their five-team qualifying table, with just one point from their four games so far.

On March 28, Matar and his teammates travel to North Korea and three days later to Riyadh to face rivals Saudi Arabia – both of which he has deemed “must-win” games.

“The next two games are a big challenge to get a chance to get to the last round, and with one point after four games it’s difficult,” conceded Matar.

“But there is nothing impossible in football – sometimes a team will win five straight games and sometimes a team will lose five straight games. If we work hard, I think we still have a chance.”

And how satisfied is the pacy marksman with his own form of late?

“I don’t think I’ve shown myself in 2009,” comes the reply, “and I think now is the time to show up.”

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