This month’s 25th Arabian Gulf Cup represents the definitive end to a glittering era for UAE football.
Searching questions posed to head coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena after a divisive squad selection now center on whether this is the bold starting point for a fresh epoch of success ahead of the impending Asian Cup, or the beginning of an imperfect succession’s chastening descent.
For the first time at a major tournament since 2010’s regional running, none from the UAE’s celebrated “Golden Generation” trio of ground-breaking 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil, 2016 winner Omar Abdulrahman and 81-goal national record marksman Ali Mabkhout are present.
These are the superstars who drove entry into the London 2012 Olympics, triumphed at the 2013 Arabian Gulf Cup, made successive semifinals in the Asian Cup and forged stellar reputations far beyond the country’s borders.
Unquestionable icons of the Emirati game. But, no longer untouchable ones.
Exclusions of the former-mentioned pair in Iraq were a given.
Khalil last netted in the ADNOC Pro League in November 2020 and has only just returned to regular duty at promoted Al-Bataeh.
The lionized days when “Amoory” was heralded as the prince of Khaleeji football are a faded memory. Several seasons bedevilled by serious injury and stark decline in attacking output put paid to that exalted status.
Al-Wasl — the enduringly frizzy-haired 31-year-old’s fourth club since August 2018 — have yet to witness a single goal contribution from 10 largely forgettable top-flight run-outs.
He was anonymous when called upon to turn the tide against Australia in June’s slender, but agonizing, fourth-round World Cup 2022 qualifying reversal. This was a first competitive cap since November 2019 and looks likely to be his unfitting last.
Khalil hasn’t played for the UAE this decade, only registering 86 minutes in the troubled earliest stages of the latest World Cup process.
Last month’s startling call to eschew Al-Jazira icon Mabkhout, however, represented a seismic shock.
“Ali Mabkhout is a respected and good player,” Arruabarrena, the former Boca Juniors, Wasl and Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club tactician who was hired in February 2022, told the blindsided Emirati media. “He was with me in the team more than once, but I am looking for other advantages on the field, different from what the player possesses.
“There are decisions that must be taken, no matter how difficult they are. My only concern is to present a good team for Emirati football.
“I know Ali Mabkhout’s importance to the team and the fans, but team play is the most important.”
No longer will a grateful nation always turn toward its historic marksman. Certainly, while Arruabarrena is at the helm.
Spirited competitive victory against South Korea and a near miss for Qatar has awarded the 47-year-old a degree of sporting capital. Such results bolstered hopes after the twice-failed experiment with Bert van Marwijk.
The Dutchman tried to move the nation too far, too quickly. It caused the torturous 2022 qualifying experience under him, plus a last indignity when Qatar inflicted a 5-0 quarter-final defeat at the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup.
Arruabarrena’s naturalized attacking trio of Al-Ain’s Caio Canedo, Wasl’s Fabio De Lima and the — formerly-mothballed — Al-Wahda veteran Sebastian Tagliabue will now bear responsibility.
So, too, emergent attackers such as Al-Wasl’s Ali Saleh, plus the electric Shabab Al-Ahli duo of Harib Abdalla and Yahya Al-Ghassani.
It was Abdalla and Tagliabue who combined for the only goal in their pre-tournament tune-up versus Lebanon. An encouraging result after September’s 1-0 loss to Paraguay and the 4-0 mauling by Venezuela, plus Argentina’s 5-0 procession immediately prior to their glorious World Cup 2022 run.
These forwards must spark to gain passage from a Group B-campaign, which kicks off on Saturday versus holders Bahrain, then continues against Kuwait and Qatar.
Yet, a leading 13 league goals have been plundered this term by Mabkhout — more than double, for example, the tally of six by ex-Barcelona hitman Paco Alcacer at first-placed Sharjah.
His 14 strikes were also the most recorded by any player throughout the entire World Cup 2022 qualifying procedure. There, the Whites were edged by Australia when they narrowly missed going within one game of returning to the globe’s premier sporting event for the first time since 1990.
Mabkhout’s name being contained in the 35-man preliminary roster seemed apt.
His seemingly inimitable attacking threat would be essential at a competition in which the UAE emerge among the main contenders after Saudi Arabia and Qatar decided to select experimental rosters following their World Cup exploits.
Redemption is also required after 2019’s hollow group-stage exit in Doha. Arruabarrena just had a distinctly different idea about how this would be achieved.
His UAE will increasingly focus on rarefied Al-Jazira midfielder Abdulla Ramadan and Sharjah tyro Majid Rashid — a bright prospect selected to join Saleh in training at the Premier League’s Crystal Palace during the World Cup stoppage.
Rapid Jazira center-back Khalifa Al-Hammadi is one of Asia’s finest defensive talents, while Shabab Al-Ahli right-back Ahmed Jamil dreams to make the position his own.
This quartet are all aged 24 or under.
Arruabarrena has, though, studied Van Marwijk’s missteps. Prominent roles continue for the likes of Al-Ain goalkeeper Khalid Essa, Shabab Al-Ahli stalwart Walid Abbas and Sharjah’s iron-willed midfielder Majed Hassan.
These players had provided the support cast to Khalil, Mabkhout and Abdulrahman for much of the past decade.
They remain entrusted to continue this role for a new generation. One which we’ll start to gauge in Basra whether it can in the future ever become “golden.”
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