|Title||Asia Angle: UAE becoming feared force ahead of 2018 World Cup qualifiers|
There was a time when people in East Asia thought of West Asian football they thought of Iran and Saudi Arabia and that was it. Understandably so. For years, these two were the powerhouses of the region, the western yin to South Korea and Japan's eastern yang. This was the continent's big four as demonstrated at the 1998 and 2006 World Cups. UAE haven't registered at all for years, perhaps never. That is changing.
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After the draw for the 2018 World Cup second round was made last week, the top seeds of the eight groups found that they were not in action in the first set of games. This left them with an ideal opportunity to arrange some tough tests to prepare and make use of these official FIFA match days that ensure that all players, irrespective of where they may play their club football, can be called up.
And South Korea want to play the UAE. This would not have been entertained a few years ago. The Whites were seen for a long time as an average team from the Middle East, not the worst but not the best. A friendly would be considered if the Taeguk Warriors were in the region already and preparing to play a team from the UAE's backyard but nobody would go out of their way to do so.
It's different now. The Korea Football Association asked coach Uli Stielike what team he wanted to play in the lead up to the first fixture, away at Myanmar (well, it was supposed to be in Myanmar but the team has to play home games away due to crowd violence. It could well be that the game will take place in Bangkok).
The German requested UAE, feeling that the quick and skilful game demonstrated by the country at the recent World Cup and before - remember the former Real Madrid star has recent experience coaching Qatar and is well aware of what has been going on in the region – would be a great test for his team that reached the final of the Asian Cup in January.
And not only that but the 2002 World Cup semi-finalists are willing to fly to the Middle East just for that friendly. This means an 11 hour flight from Seoul and than an eight hour journey to South-east Asia for the game with Myanmar and then five hours more back home. Dubai is well out of Korea's way but it is seen as a worthy destination.
It is the case that Korea has been drawn with Kuwait and Lebanon in the same group and some West Asian opposition is seen as decent preparation for those tests but this is not the whole story. Korea has met those two nations on multiple occasions in recent years and there is little mystery. There were four games with Lebanon in qualification for the 2014 World Cup and two with Kuwait. The Blues were also opposition in the Asian Cup in January.
It's more down to the strides that UAE football has made over the last few years. East Asian nations generally don't take much notice of West Asia, and vice versa, but the third place in Australia made people sit up and take notice. Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout are being discussed all over the continent. Eliminating Japan at the quarter-final stage was a big result in more ways than one and certainly made fans in China and Korea sit up too.
The UAE is now becoming a continental power and more importantly is being perceived as such by other continental powers. This is obviously a big deal. Being seen as a good team means that you play better teams. You don't always have to travel to Europe in search of decent non West Asian opposition. Mahdi Ali's men can stay in Dubai or Abu Dhabi and still be able to face a better class of opposition.
What would be really special would be the UAE being invited to Seoul or Tokyo for a high-profile friendly, not to prepare for any special game against West Asian opposition but just to play. This may take a few more years. Perhaps it needs World Cup qualification. Once you seal that place in the big tournament, it is obviously easy in the build up to organise some tough games. Put in a decent performance on the global stage itself and a national team can dine out on that for years to come.
It all provides an extra building block in the construction of a strong team. Success breeds success and that is what the UAE are finding. It is not just that the nation knows it has a good team it is that other countries are starting to agree.
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