Over a week has passed since the UAE’s hopes of making it to Qatar 2022 were officially extinguished at the hands of Australia. With that exit, the last embers of the country’s second Golden Generation have surely been extinguished too.
As Australian continue to bask in the afterglow of their dramatic and unexpected penalty shootout victory in the resultant match against Peru, a win that secured their place at the global showpiece for the fifth consecutive occasion, the UAE are left to wonder “what if?” as their wait for a second appearance extends from 32 years to at least 36.
Getting so close after so long will hurt for a while. Chances like that are few and far between.
But more pressing than wondering “what if?” should be the question of “what now?” What does the UAE need to do to ensure the wait for a second appearance at the FIFA World Cup doesn’t extend beyond 36 years come the expanded World Cup in 2026?
For the answer they need only look across the border to Saudi Arabia.
Who would have thought only a decade ago that we’d be looking at the Kingdom as the bastion of stability? But under the leadership of Saudi Arabian Football Federation president Yasser Al-Misehal, that is exactly what they have become.
After the disappointment of Russia 2018, and the Asian Cup in the UAE six months later, they encountered a fork in the road. It could have gone either way.
They had a vision and a plan and, in Herve Renard, they found a man they believed could bring it to life.
Importantly, they didn’t panic when things didn’t start well. When they won only one of their first three qualifiers, drawing with Yemen and Palestine, they kept faith in Renard and the plan, and it was more than rewarded as the Frenchman built his side into one of the most consistent on the continent; winning seven and losing just one of their ten games in the final round to finish top of their group.
Renard has now signed a deal that will take him through until 2027. Should he see out that contract — and there’s no reason yet to suggest he won’t — it will make him by far Saudi Arabia’s longest-serving manager.
Stability has been the key. It is the foundation on which everything else can be built.
Saudi Arabia are now headed for a second consecutive World Cup and look to be set for a period of sustained success.
Having made no fewer than five coaching changes in the previous qualifying campaign, the UAE have been the complete antithesis of stable. The focus needs to shift from the short term to the medium and long term.
It is no surprise that their greatest period of success in recent times came under Mahdi Ali, who worked with a generation of players through the junior national teams all the way through to the senior set-up. During that period, they had consistency and stability, and a coach they backed to the hilt.
If the UAE FA has determined that Argentine Rodolfo Arruabarrena, the latest man to occupy the hot seat, is the man to take them forward, they need to back him and they need to give him time. They need to demonstrate a level of patience that hasn’t existed in recent times.
While overall it was a bitterly disappointing campaign, there are some green shoots that give hope for the future.
The performance of Harib Abdallah in their final two games — against two of Asia’s biggest teams in South Korea and Australia, no less — should make every fan of Emirati football proud, and give them great hope for the future. For a long period in the game against Australia he looked like being the difference, such was his threat down the left-hand side of the field.
As the previous golden generation fades away, it is players such as Abdallah, Ali Saleh, Yahya Al-Ghassani and Khalfan Mubarak — when he can get himself fit — that will take the team into a new era.
With the Asian Cup only 12 months away, and the next World Cup qualification cycle to begin not too long after that, they should be afforded every opportunity over the ensuing period to stake their claim ahead of more senior players. The time for generational change is now.
Pleasingly, Arruabarrena, in his short time in charge, has proven himself to be a coach that places faith and trust in younger players. In the pressure-filled playoff against Australia, he started the inexperienced duo of Khaled Al-Dhanhani and Abdullah Hamad, who between them had fewer than 10 caps. That augers well for the future.
The future is what you make it. What will the UAE make of theirs?