In keeping with the flurry of activity that occurs when the temperatures here go from broiling to bearable, the FIFA Under-17 World Cup kicks off today in Abu Dhabi. Here in the capital, Brazil faces Slovakia tonight before the host nation gets its campaign underway against Honduras. While the nation shifts its focus to the youth level, the senior team is making news in its own way.
Under Mahdi Ali, who recently started his second year in charge of the national team, the UAE is on an unprecedented roll. It has won 15 consecutive matches including friendlies, 2015 Asian Cup qualifying and the 2013 Gulf Cup. The team is unbeaten in 17 matches -- winning 16 and drawing one (2-2 vs. Uzbekistan in Dubai) -- since Mahdi Ali's first game in charge, a 1-0 friendly loss in Niigata against Japan. During the streak, the UAE reclaimed the Gulf Cup for the first time since 2007 (and just the second time ever) and jumped to the top of its Asian Cup qualifying group. Among the teams to fall to the UAE during the run are Kuwait, Bahrain, Estonia, Yemen, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Iraq, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Trinidad & Tobago, New Zealand, Laos, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
With Hong Kong and Vietnam visiting Abu Dhabi next month as Asian Cup qualifying draws to a close, the UAE's place at the tournament proper in Australia looks all but assured. About the only cloud to this silver lining is the prospect of what could have been -- prior to this unbeaten run, and perhaps what led to Mahdi Ali's appointment, the UAE finished last in its third-round World Cup qualifying group. The fact that Jordan, a team just nine places higher than the UAE in the FIFA rankings, is 180 minutes away from a place in the World Cup might not sit especially well.
Still, the future is bright enough to keep such speculation at the back of supporters' minds. With young attacking talent such as Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout spearheading the charge toward Australia, the UAE could soon establish itself as the team to beat in the Gulf and a threat to return to the World Cup for the first time since 1990.