OPINION: Plenty of positives in UAE’s Asian Cup campaign

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Japan v UAE: Quarter Final - 2015 Asian Cup

While they may have failed to achieve the ultimate goal, the United Arab Emirates can walk away from the 2015 AFC Asian Cup with their heads held high.

While there is the small matter of the third place playoff in Newcastle tonight, the reality is the main prize has come and gone.

“When we came here our aim was to reach the semi-finals,” coach Mahdi Ali explained after their semi final loss to Australia.

“We achieved out first goal, but that was not the big dream, the big dream was to win the title.”

But while they won’t get their hands on the trophy, they have won something just slightly less valuable – respect.

“It’s the first time in a long time the team has been taken seriously as a challenger outside of Gulf Cup competitions,” Emirati journalist Ali Khaled told Football Channel Asia.

“They were praised at the Olympics, but as a plucky underdog. Now, knocking out the champions and outplaying Iran shows they can play with the big boys.”

Their penalty shootout win over Japan will go down as one of the greatest Asian Cup upsets in recent times.

With World Cup qualifying to begin in just six months, coach Mahdi Ali knows the experience the players gained in Australia will hold them in good stead.

“Playing under pressure every three days against strong teams is a great experience for the players,” the baseball cap-wearing coach said.

“You need to concentrate in critical moments, especially in the first 15 minutes, at the end of the first half and the start of the second half, but we lost concentration in the first 15 minutes and conceded two goals.

“This is a big lesson and we need to learn you have to concentrate for 90 minutes and mistakes are not acceptable as you lose the game.”

The success of the can be traced back seven years to the 2008 AFC U19 Championships, won by the under the guidance of none other than Mahdi Ali himself. A number of the players from that squad remain and formed part of the 23-man squad at this Asian Cup.

As the players have progressed through the age groups, so too has Ali. In a region renowned for its lack of patience with coaches, having such a meticulous plan and sticking to it makes the UAE stand out. It’s no coincidence that they’re the one Gulf nation to really progress in recent years, while the rest either plateau or go backwards.

“When Mahdi took over he had three targets,” Khaled explained to Football Channel Asia.

“Short term to win the Gulf Cup, and that was done (in 2013). Medium term to be in the top four in Asia and now he’s achieved that too. His final one is to qualify to the World Cup.

“I think fans believe it’s a realistic target. The team is easily the best among the Gulf nations and now they’ve shown they can compete with the bigger Asian nations. A favourable draw or path could see the dream of Russia 2018 become reality.”

The man that makes fans think it is possible is the undoubted superstar of the side, Omar Abdulrahman. Before the tournament began he already had a reputation as one of the best talents in Asia and that has more than been reinforced over the past three weeks.

“In Omar they have a superstar that football fans, coaches and media can identify the UAE with,” Khaled, who writes for The National, said.

“Australian and other journalists have certainly given him enough attention. That’s never really happened before with Emirati players.”

At just 23 years of age it seems just a matter of time before the Saudi-born star makes the move to Europe. His talents deserve a bigger audience.

Before then though, he and his teammates have to get over the disappointment of their semi final loss and front up tonight against Iraq and finish the tournament on a high.

A third place finish is no less than they deserve.