The failure of the United Arab Emirates’ U23 team to qualify for next year’s AFC U23 Championships in China is the latest in an increasing growing list of concerns for those in charge at the UAE FA and for the future direction of the senior national team.
Rewind two years and the UAE were the toast of Asia after their exploits at the Asian Cup in Australia. The squad that came within one match of the final had been on the radar for some time under the guidance of Mahdi Ali, having won the 2008 AFC U19 Championships and qualified for the 2012 London Olympics. They were primed for success.
Omar Abdulrahman, Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Khalil, who were all still in their early 20s, looked destined for bigger and better things. This was their team and they were ready to lead.
But two years later, success hasn’t followed. The Emiratis are already eliminated from qualifying for Russia 2018, despite a promising start and a historic win over Japan at Saitama Stadium, and towards the end of Ali’s reign in charge there was a serious bout of staleness in the side. The average age of the squad for the recent qualifier against Thailand was 27.5 years, and just two of those were 23 or under.
This is a side in need of some fresh blood. Not a complete makeover, as a lot of the squad are still in their prime in their mid 20s, but an injection of youth is needed to breath life back into what has become a lifeless Emirati side.
That has to be the remit of newly appointed coach Edgardo Bauza, especially when you take into consideration the fact the UAE will host the 2019 Asian Cup in just 18 months time.
After their exploits in Australia, it was expected that the Emirates would again be among the serious contenders when they host the tournament in January 2019.
There is no doubt that the UAE FA would’ve targeted a title on home soil and after the Asian Cup in 2015 that wasn’t a far-fetched scenario. At the moment, however, that seems further away than it has at any point in the last five years.
What is perhaps most concerning, though, is their future World Cup prospects. Given 2018 was considered their best chance of qualifying for a World Cup since their solitary appearance in 1990, where does their current predicament leave them placed for qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup?
Despite the ongoing tensions in the Gulf nations, the fact remains that Qatar 2022 remains the only time in the foreseeable future that the World Cup will be hosted in the Middle East.
It’s an opportunity that cannot be squandered, and with the World Cup not set to expand to 48 teams until 2026, it will again be just the four nations from Asia that qualify automatically, not including Qatar which qualifies automatically as host. With the current players another three-to-four years older, what has proved tough this time around will be even tougher for 2022 without some newer blood.
This is where this U23 generation comes in and why their failure to qualify for next year’s tournament is such a big blow.
It shouldn’t be lost on those in charge, either, that it was Uzbekistan, a nation UAE will be challenging for qualification in 2022, which beat them 2-0 and ended their hopes of qualifying for next year’s tournament.
While there is no real consequence of their failure – it’s the 2020 AFC U23 Championships that act as Olympic qualifiers – it denies the players the chance of gaining valuable international experience.
That now can only come from game time with the senior squad. Bauza, who was in attendance at the U23 qualifying tournament, needs to maximise the opportunities for his players going forward.
With the Gulf Cup scheduled for December this year, and we await to see whether that will still go ahead with Qatar slated as host, Bauza should use this tournament to give opportunities to the next wave of talent.
Al Jazira midfielder Khalfan Mubarak, 22, was a standout last season in a side that stormed its way to an unlikely championship with five goals from 22 matches, and was rightly awarded the AGL Golden Boy award for the best young player in the competition.
Ahmed Al Attas, a teammate of Mubarak at Al Jazira and one of UAE’s best performers in the recent U23 qualifying tournament with three goals, is another who has impressed. The 21-year-old has already made his national team debut. Scoring in an 8-0 drubbing of Timor-Leste in the second round of World Cup qualifying.
It’s incumbent upon Bauza to give players like Mubarak, Al Attas and others like them time with the senior team, not only to put pressure on those already in the squad who feel comfortable in their position, but to prepare the players and the team for the next five years.
If he and the UAE FA don’t take the lessons from the disappointments it will be a long time before the Emirates can once again dream of being the kings of Asia.