UAE-based Australian coach Huss Skenderovic believes big overseas signings and stronger youth development structures have contributed to the Emiratis’ success at the Asian Cup.
On Friday night in Sydney, the United Arab Emirates pulled off the biggest upset of Asian Cup so far, knocking out tournament favourites Japan on penalties after a 1-1 draw (AET).
UAE star Omar Abdulrahman even had the confidence to pull out an audacious panenka in the shootout to help sink the Samurai Blue.
The win prompted wild scenes across the Emirates with fans taking to the streets to blare car horns in celebration.
The victory set up an intriguing semi-final in Newcastle with the Socceroos this Tuesday night.
While defender Ismail Ahmed blasted the winning shootout penalty, it was striker Ali Mabkhout who smashed home a wonderful opener inside the first ten minutes to help set up the triumph.
Skenderovic, the technical director at Ajman FC in the UAE Arabian Gulf League (formerly the UAE Pro League), says Mabkhout is a good example of locals learning off big name signings into the league.
And he had a warning for the Socceroos ahead of their semi-final.
“Their coach [Mahdi Ali] has to be given a lot of credit. Number one, he spent a lot of time with them. He’s a very wise, intelligent coach in his approach.
“This younger generation that’s playing now, it’s going to get stronger. They’ve been together for a long time. They are all at big clubs playing with good players,” he told www.socceroos.com.au on Saturday.
“You look at someone like Ali Mabkhout. This guy a couple of years ago was sitting on the bench and was competing with other big players coming in.
“And now he’s playing with someone like Mirko Vucinic formerly of Juventus. Players like this, they benefit from the foreign players who come here. Without a doubt.
“Watching Ali, his movement and the way he positions himself. He’s very direct ... it comes from learning and working hard and looking at what quality players – like Vucinic – are doing.”
But, perhaps more significantly for the UAE, is the planning and development of the game in the Emirates over recent years.
“The infrastructure in terms of the club based academies has been very good in how they’re producing some really good talent. And that’s because the money, infrastructure and the facilities … the investment in that has really paid off," said Skenderovic.
UAE is already a firm favourite to host the next Asian Cup in 2019, with Skenderovic giving UAE a thumbs-up as a destination to host the region’s showpiece event.
Skenderovic, who recently worked with another Aussie expat coach Arthur Papas at Robert Pires’ ISL club Goa FC, arrived in the UAE three years ago and found work immediately. With limited opportunities in Australia, he’s found his niche in a growing football culture like UAE.
Hyundai A-League outfit Melbourne City FC, owned by Abu Dhabi interests, were in the UAE during the Asian Cup for a training camp and friendlies.Skenderovic took the opportunity to reconnect with some of the club’s coaching staff while City were in Abu Dhabi.
“It was good to catch up with JVS and Luche [Luci Trani] and Ivan Jolic who I know quite well. We discussed a few things and I watched them play against Al Jazeera.
“They felt the harder grounds perhaps at first.... they really struggled in the second half [against Al Jazeera]. And it just goes to show you, the quality of football in UAE is there. You can’t disrespect the league in any way.
“The local domestic competition probably has suffered a lot of criticism. And none play abroad – so to have gone this far in the Asian Cup shows you there is quality here."
But the Aussie has some advice for the UAE stars of the Asian Cup.
“If they want to take their games to the next level, they do need to leave here and go play in Europe. Someone like Omar Abdulrahman would be fantastic to go play abroad to gain more experience, because he’s in his comfort zone here.
"He gets gifts, and a lot of good favours are given to him in terms of monetary bounties.
“But if he wants to challenge himself he needs to leave here. This is a comfortable place to be as a footballer.
“And Ali Mabkhout would be another one who could play overseas to take his game to a new level.
“But can the outside world compete with what they receive here with the luxurious cars, shopping, the homes? Do they want to leave those comforts?”
So, next Tuesday Skenderovic will be a very interested viewer when the Green and Gold face the surprise-packets from the Emirates. Will he be cheering for Ange's Socceroos or Mahdi Ali's men?
“I’m Australian, so I’ll always back my home country.
"But I’ll definitely have a soft spot for the UAE as this is where I live now and the locals are very warm people.
"But let’s go Aussies, let’s beat them!”
The Socceroos play the United Arab Emiriates in the Semi-Finals of the AFC Asian Cup on Tuesday 27 January with the match to be broadcast LIVE on Fox Sports 505 and LIVE on ABC from 8pm AEDT.