Astute Ali engineers UAE rise

Great show from age group and senior national soccer teams have been highlights of 2013

By Moni Mathews (

Published: Tue 24 Dec 2013, 2:07 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 6:53 PM

The show put up by the UAE age group and senior national soccer squads have been the highlights of the sports achievements of the country for the year 2013.

The celebrations in sports can be fully justified thanks mainly to the progress made by the resurgent national soccer side in recent times.

Apart from the sport and national soccer coach Ali Mahdi’s achievements, the young talent in women’s long distance running have done the country proud.

Bethlem Desaleyn and Alia Saeed Mohammed won medals including coveted golds in several regional and Arab meetings, and the Asian Athletics Championship in Pune earlier this year.

In November this year, the UAE went through their Group E qualifiers in fine style to book a place for the 2015 Asian Cup (soccer) in Australia. They set aside the challenges of Uzbekistan, Hong Kong and Vietnam without losing a single match in the home and away legs. Early in 2012, the national soccer side slipped to 138th place in the Fifa/Coca Cola World Rankings after their best ever 42nd while on road to the 1990 World Cup in Italy. It was at this period of time that Dubai-based Ali was brought in as a full time UAE senior soccer team coach in March 2012, the first national ever to hold the post which had previously always gone to very highly paid foreigners and their team support staff. It was a wise choice.

The engineer turned coach has since then, justified the trust put on him by the UAE Football Association. He guided the UAE to the quarter-finals of the Fifa U20 World Cup Egypt 2009 and to the men’s Olympic soccer tournament London 2012. There is no short cuts or tricks in 38-year-old Ali’s manuals. He has unlimited faith in grassroot level promotion. “The nucleus of our team (seniors) has the U23 team’s London 2012 campaign and the ones from the Egypt 2009 trip. The same players of the Nile adventure won the Asian U19 title in 2008,” said Ali while talking to Khaleej Times when he was the chief guest for a schools athletics championship at the Police Officers’ Club in the Al Jaddaf area during the early part of the 2013 season.

The latest match in the impressive Ali dossier is the performance against Vietnam in the Capital recently after winning in Hanoi in the away leg earlier this year in the run-up to the Asian Cup which is two seasons away. While talking to the Khaleej Times earlier this year before the national squad left for the first leg Asian Cup 2015 qualifier against Vietnam, Ali said: “What we need is to strengthen our plus points and slowly but consistently work hard to minimise the common mistakes we tend to make. “This can come about only through specialised camps to nurse our approach and then concentrate on devising methods to handle the opposition both strong and weak. The players must first and foremost believe in themselves and develop mature match temperament to take on the much tougher opponents especially in Asia where we are climbing in the ratings.”

The engineer who works with the government wasted little time in justifying his appointment, masterminding their stunning 2013 Gulf Cup triumph in Bahrain, a tournament in which they won all their matches. Under Ali’s watchful eye, The Whites (UAE team’s nickname) also recorded three straight wins in Group E of the qualifying competition for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, and also completed a lengthy round of friendlies without suffering a single defeat. Not surprisingly the amazing turnaround in their form led to a big improvement in the UAE’s world rating. In October the UAE went up to 71st (seventh in Asia), their best since June 2006. Ali’s ‘wonder boys’ have now an appreciable unbeaten cycle of 16 matches, one of the latest additions to that sequence being the four they put past a hapless Philippines.

Asked about his side’s impressive revival, the 48-year-old Emirati coach told media: “We take all our games very seriously, and we take into account every little detail we think can make a difference. It’s a young team but they’ve already acquired a lot of experience in the 50 internationals they’ve played now.”

Though Ali’s reign began with a 1-0 defeat to Japan in September 2012, any doubts about the wisdom of his appointment were quickly dispelled by a 3-0 win over Kuwait and a 2-2 draw with Uzbekistan the following month. Better was to come, as The Whites went on a 10-match winning spree, which began with three friendly wins and then featured a perfect run at the 2013 Gulf Cup, where they overcame Qatar, Bahrain and Oman in the group phase, saw off Kuwait in the semi-finals and beat Iraq 2-1 in the final. Hungry for even more, Ali’s prodigies maintained their fierce pace in the Asian Cup qualifiers, disposing of Vietnam and Uzbekistan by identical 2-1 scorelines before cruising to a 4-0 defeat of Hong Kong.

A friendly win over New Zealand in September this year kept the momentum going as they continued their climb up the global ranking list. The Whites are close to a good show in the tough group they are in for the 2015 Asian Cup, but being the practical man with an eye for details, Ali feels this is only one small step towards placing the UAE as a permanent soccer power, first in Asia, and then on the world arena. Ali no doubt must be getting into the mould of being perched in the golden period when the UAE once enjoyed a world 42nd placing when they made it to the 1990 World Cup in Italy after bruising qualifying rounds and the final qualifying league in the slushy, wet and humid equatorial conditions in Singapore where they stunned the then powerhouses of Asia.

The first Emirati to hold the permanent post of the UAE national soccer squad, Ali was given enough room and time to mould a team when he took over in 2012. The initial days were tough for him as the UAE were eliminated from qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. The resourceful coach played with distinction for Al Ahli club in the UAE national league once. He then turned his attention to shaping the younger generation including the national Olympic probables in his quest to pace the country on to the world map again.

Ali has overseen this present team of fully home bred Emirati soccer players right from the age group level to the senior National team. The UAE have emerged as a dominant force in Asia and the 48-year-old wants to keep the momentum going. The UAE coach has put forward a proposal to the UAE Football Association where he wants them to play higher-ranked teams in the future, which mentioned during interviews with several papers in the UAE. Ali picked out teams placed from 30 to 40 in the Fifa rankings as prospective opponents as he prepares his squad for the AFC 2015 Asian Cup.

“In future, we want to play stronger teams, teams which are ranked between 30 to 40 in the Fifa rankings,” Ali had told reporters before the AFC Asian Cup qualifier against Hong Kong.

“It has been a wonderful year for us and now we have to raise the level for this squad. We want to play friendlies against stronger opponents for our future preparations,” Ali said.

The UAE improved on their Fifa ranking in the late November listing.

Ali was particularly pleased with the 5-0 win against Vietnam in the Asian Cup qualifiers. “I’m happy for this win, especially, because we are in a good and happy moment because the National Day is coming up. The fans are also happy after seeing us play good football. The team did well and we capitalised on Vietnam’s weak points. “We scored five goals but we could have scored more. But we were not lucky. I thank the players, staff, everyone for the success so far,” Ali mentioned in post match interviews the Press and broadcast media.

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