DUBAI: Another ticket to the World Cup after more than three decades away, or another false dawn?
That is the burning question which hangs over Paulo Bento’s UAE side ahead of Thursday’s competitive debut versus Nepal, when qualifying kicks off.
The ex-Portugal and South Korea tactician’s start has been exemplary. It has included a trio of friendly victories, opening with September’s 4-1 bow against Keylor Navas’ Costa Rica.
The UAE’s stale squad appears rejuvenated by fresh faces, and a renewed sense of purpose has radiated out to the country’s often jaded fanbase.
How Saudi Arabia’s Roberto Mancini and Bento’s Portuguese compatriot Carlos Queiroz with Qatar must envy this efficacious introduction.
Now comes the real test for a nation who stumbled through a torturous 2022 cycle under Bento’s many predecessors.
A cursory scan of the road to Qatar details a pained near miss for The Whites, with Australia edging their tense fourth-round tie 2-1. In theory, an improving side were almost one game away from returning to football’s grandest tournament for the first time since 1990.
The preceding World Cup process, however, featured two stints at the helm for Bert van Marwijk, brief spells with Ivan Jovanovic and Jorge Luis Pinto amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s third-round interlude headlined by an encouraging defeat of South Korea, then defining reversal to the Socceroos.
Order and focus must be inculcated by Bento, the UAE’s sixth permanent appointment since 2019. His record-long four-year tenure with South Korea culminated after last December’s World Cup round-of-16 defeat to Brazil.
Similar goodwill surrounded Van Marwijk at the same point in 2019. It soon dissipated into recriminations when results and performances crumbled.
November’s World Cup 2026/2027 AFC Asian Cup qualifying double header – a trip to Bahrain comes on Tuesday – is speedily followed by 2023’s delayed continental tournament in December/January.
Expectations remain high for a country ranked 69th by FIFA. An expanded, 48-team World Cup awaits, while semi-final runs were recorded at the 2015 and 2019 Asian Cups.
The backbone of the 54-year-old’s squad is provided by Al-Jazira’s productive academy, plus Al-Ain and Sharjah sides excelling in the 2023/24 AFC Champions League.
ADNOC Pro League champions Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club had the quality to give Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr an enormous scare in the continental club tournament’s play-offs.
Missteps will not be tolerated.
Bento, hired in July on a contract until December 2026, said: “Our goal is to restore the confidence and faith of the fans in the national team by continuing the positive results.
“We ask the fans to be present behind the national team because their presence is important to motivate the players to perform better.
“The Nepal match is of special importance because it is the first in the qualifying campaign and it is held in our stadium. I am satisfied with the commitment of the players in it (training at Al-Wasl’s Zabeel Stadium) and their serious effort to achieve the three points in our first qualifier.
“We went through several camps and matches, in the last period. Things are going well and there are many aspects that we are working on developing, and the start with the national team has been good so far.”
Contrasting styles and changing personnel detail the UAE’s recent history. These included Van Marwijk’s staccato revolutions, Jovanovic’s matchless existence, Pinto’s jarring stay, and Arruabarrena’s transitory period.
Bento, however, appears a man well-suited for the task.
Identity was swiftly imposed with South Korea, a nation he parted on warm terms last winter.
Further gravitas was generated by managing Ronaldo’s Portugal from 2010 to 2014, plus a solid playing career as midfield enforcer for the likes of Benfica and Sporting Lisbon.
Prospects either ignored or unproductively utilised in prior regimes have come to the fore.
Shabab Al-Ahli flyer Yahya Al-Ghassani was sensational in the Costa Rica thrashing, Al-Wahda utility midfielder Tahnoon Al-Zaabi netted an acrobatic goal in the 1-0 defeat of Kuwait, and Al-Wasl forward Caio Canedo’s effort in a 2-1 victory over Lebanon made it two goals under Bento after failing to net during his nine prior caps.
Eighty-eight-goal record scorer Ali Mabkhout has been reintegrated and a long-deserved debut awarded to Al-Jazira teammate Zayed Sultan.
An eye to the future is, also, part of Bento’s present. Highly rated Al-Ain starlet Hazim Abbas, 18, has registered the same number of senior international caps (two) as ADNOC Pro League appearances.
Clubmate Eisa Khalfan has received similar exposure, plus Al-Wasl defender Omar Haikal and Ittihad Kalba loanee Sultan Adil.
Established figures – including Ahmed Barman, Bandar Al-Ahbabi, and Walid Abbas – appear to have been phased out.
It is unlikely that a U-turn on international retirement by 38-year-old Sharjah striker Sebastian Tagliabue will follow, after last playing under Arruabarrena during January’s humbling group-stage exit at the Arabian Gulf Cup.
New leadership figures are emerging. Al-Jazira’s rapid center-back Khalifa Al-Hammadi was the UAE’s youngest selection at the 2019 Asian Cup, and now he is an outstanding 25-year-old with more than 30 caps to his name.
Al-Hammadi told Dubai Sports: “We are ready to fight in the first confrontation against Nepal. The UAE technical staff are making great efforts to prepare the players for the match.
“We are confident that Al-Abyad (The Whites) fans will come to the match to support their national team.”
Positivity defines Bento’s initiation, exemplified by supporters piling into last week’s open training session in Dubai.
A nation expects – and demands. There is belief Bento can deliver.
But, as ever, this remains fragile. Only results can solidify it, beginning with the UAE’s qualifying skirmishes against Nepal and surprise 2019 Arabian Gulf Cup victors Bahrain.