How times have changed for the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
As the Whites joyously celebrated an incredible third place at January 2015’s Asian Cup which, seemingly, verified a long-held belief World Cup 2018 qualification was pre-destined for the ‘Golden Generation’, only expert soothsayers would have predicted a fractured side already sitting at home would instead discover the path to Russia.
Yet this is the scenario which has unfolded ahead of Tuesday night’s third-and-final round clash at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
It is a story of how diverging fortunes speak volumes about the current administration, organisation and health of the combatants’ respective national games.
One made a full commitment to startling change. The other chose inactivity and only a belated reaction when faced with the prospect that a rapid descent was following the ascent of a notable summit.
Victory for the Saudis will put them on the cusp of a return to the globe’s greatest sporting occasion for the first time since 2006. Victory for the UAE is likely to prove inconsequential to hopes which became forlorn many months ago.
A propensity to plumb new depths continued for the once proud Saudis during their travails Down Under. A bedraggled regional behemoth limped into the tournament with criminally-low expectations, respected Al Ahli coach Cosmin Olaroiu brought in on loan at the last minute – his return of one wins and two defeats during a group-stage exit no surprise to Asian aficionados.
The contrast to the buoyant UAE was damning. Under the paternal care of boss Mahdi Ali, a tiny nation in size and history was making the most of its limited resources.
Al Ain playmaker Omar Abdulrahman became a superstar, while Al Jazira frontman Ali Mabkhout came away with the Golden Boot following an enlivening run which included defeat to Australia in the semi-finals. But a fork in the road had been reached.
The man who led the Netherlands to defeat at the 2014 World Cup final, Bert van Marwijk, was given a sweeping mandate in August 2015 to revitalise all aspects of Saudi football. Plus, an almost-full shot at qualifying for Russia.
In contrast, an understandable error not to recognise a high-water mark had been reached by Ali was compounded by him limping on under two different regimes at the UAE Football Association until terminal double defeat to Japan and Australia this March.
Further ignominy came in the sinuous pursuit of a replacement which ended with Argentina’s Edgardo Bauza being provided with limited preparation time ahead of a predictable 1-1 draw on debut this June in Thailand.
Such a startling turnaround did not happen by chance. Rather, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation recognised the value of introspection after a near decade of tumult.
Lessons difficult to comprehend throughout Middle Eastern football were heeded.
For the UAE to avoid embarrassment on home soil at the 2019 edition, their populace must hope this example will be followed.
Boxing, cricket, football, golf, athletics and tennis – all six of our featured sports have their own way of creating nerves and delivering memorable sporting moments.
In no particular order, here’s six sporting instances when immense bottle is required to deliver the goods.
What do you make of our picks?
Cricket kicks us off…
T20 cricket can go either way, it’s the nature of the beast.
But boy, when it doesn’t go your way, you want the ground to swallow you up.
When England were on the brink of securing the World T20 title in Kolkata last April, Ben Stokes was just the man to call upon to bowl the last over and sew up victory.
West Indies needed 19 to win and Stokes’ job was to restrict the free-flowing bat of Carlos Brathwaite.
The next four balls – which weren’t bad deliveries at all by the Englishman – were all smacked out of the ground for sixes to help the Caribbean side to victory.
International cricket is decided by fine margins and when the pressure is really on, like it was in India for the Durham man, it boils down to who can execute their skills the best (a little luck helps too).
A big heavyweight boxing clash between two brutes of the sport captures the imagination like no other contest.
Whether you’re supporting one side or the other, or are a complete neutral, the power of two giants hitting each other blow-by-blow makes you glued to the TV set. It must feel like you’re part of the action ring-side.
The thing with heavyweight boxing is you never know when that bout-ending uppercut (think Anthony Joshua against Wladimir Klitschko in April at Wembley Stadium) or a devastating left hook is going to come, that’s what really keeps you on edge.
It’s a feeling that few sports can replicate.
When it comes down to the crunch in professional sport, a split second decision, right or wrong, or a moment of genius can decide the outcome.
For 100m sprinters this is perhaps exaggerated even more given years of training and dedication is boiled down to roughly 10 seconds – or even less if you get a false start and get disqualified from the race.
Mentally – knowing that everything is about that one very moment and nothing else – must be extremely difficult for world-class athletes.
In sprinting, especially, you don’t get too many cracks in what is a short career at securing a World Championship or indeed Olympic medal. Imagine if it doesn’t go to plan and you’ll left to rue a mistake out of the blocks for years? That’ll be too much for most.
Indeed, we felt the nerves just watching the final…and we were thousands of miles away at Sport360 HQ in Dubai on Saturday.
The wait for the starting pistol, and then “On your marks”, “Set”, probably feels like an eternity for the sprinters trackside.
Heart and adrenaline must be going into overdrive.
As we saw with the great Usain Bolt, if your start isn’t up to scratch if can affect you for the rest of the race.
It is without doubt one of the most difficult sporting actions to master.
For a tennis player – winning a Grand Slam, particularly Wimbledon, is the ultimate goal. Few people get the chance to achieve the ultimate – and if you do – you don’t want to blow it with a bundle of nerves.
After three previous Wimbledon final defeats, who could blame Goran Ivanisevic for feeling more than a few jitters when he had the chance to serve-out a five-set epic 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 7-8* against Pat Rafter and win the SW19 crown for the first time.
Indeed, the Croatian fan favourite admitted he could barely feel his left-arm when sending down his famous serve.
Ivanisevic blew three match points and sent down two double faults, before finally winning a dramatic final game which lasted over five minutes. 9-7 in the fifth.
The video below does it more justice than words.
Sergio Garcia made it look all too easy when he fired in a birdie putt on the final hole of his thrilling play-off victory over Justin Rose to win at the Augusta National Golf Club earlier this year.
While the Spaniard is one of the most experienced pros around, that putt was the difference between his first-ever major title victory or once again being labelled as the nearly man.
The mental toughness, concentration and coolness needed to slot away a winning putt like that takes guts and world-class skill.
Many players have blown huge chances before – Dustin Johnson a couple of years ago and Greg Norman way back in the 1990s springs to mind – which goes to show finishing the job when it comes to golf is far from easy.
You definitely don’t want a case of the yips.
It doesn’t matter how good you are or have been as a player, a penalty shoot-out miss can really define you…especially as they normally come in big games.
While England fans know all too well about penalty failures down the years, is it unfair a talent like Roberto Baggio is arguably best remembered for his ballooned spot-kick which cost Italy the 1994 World Cup against Brazil?
Probably not – but unfortunately what you do in one kick from 12 yards carries with it a big weight of history, whether you score or miss.
Just ask John Terry.
For all the trophies in his cabinet, the ex-Chelsea skipper will forever be haunted by his slip-up in Moscow and how he blew the chance to gift the Blues a European Cup by the hair’s width of a post.
He isn’t the quickest India batsman between the wickets. He isn’t the most athletic fielder, either.
But put a bat in his hand, and he can bat longer, possibly score higher than any of his more illustrious team-mates. If Virat Kohli is the all-encompassing superstar of this side, and Ravi Ashwin the central bowler who makes it all tick, it is in Cheteshwar Pujara that you find the quintessential Test batsman.
“Never”, he replied with a smile, when asked if he ever gets bored of scoring runs. “I am someone who always loves batting. The kind of bowlers I am facing hardly matters to me, or the kind of opposition for that matter. When you are playing at international level and representing your country, you want to win each match. I never get bored of this game.”
Hailing from small-town Rajkot, you can always sense the roots of this love. Like most youngsters in this country, he grew up watching Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. Every kid in India wants to hold a bat in hand, wants to score runs, hit sixes and raise arms on reaching a hundred. Very few want to bowl.
While millions of such aspiring kids in the dustbowls across the Indian sub-continent harbour this dream, very few get to work towards it. And even fewer actually break through, with enough sweat, blood and persistence. Pujara is that one in a million kid, now poised to play his 50th Test for India at Colombo.
“When I started playing cricket, I always wanted to be a Test cricketer. Having the opportunity to represent my country for the 50th Test will be a proud moment. I take one match at a time so I shouldn’t be too emotional about it. The way things have shaped up so far, it has been a good career but one with ups and downs,” said Pujara.
That he gets to cross this milestone at the Sinhalese Sports Club is poetic. This was where he made a stunning comeback to the Indian team after eight months on the bench. The management experimented with Rohit Sharma at No3 as Pujara was sidelined after poor returns in New Zealand (60 runs in two Tests), England (222 runs in five Tests) and Australia (221 runs in three Tests).
The issue was ‘strike-rate’, simplified in the explanation of enforcing proceedings and stamping your authority on the opposition.
It wasn’t a wrong move on the part of Kohli and then team director (now head coach) Ravi Shastri. They were searching for a Ricky Ponting, someone who could intimidate the opposition, but Rohit failed to impress. They, then, reverted to Pujara, a workman just like Dravid; someone who takes the bowlers apart slowly.
But first, Pujara had to impress. It might sound like an unnecessary audition, yet that is precisely what that SSC Test was. Even when picked,he was a makeshift opener, for the team management still baulked at the chance to play him at No3.
Pujara accepted the challenge, and scored a resolute 145 not out on a green-top wicket, paving the way for a first Indian Test series win on Sri Lankan soil in 22 years. There has been no looking back since.
“When I got that hundred here in 2015, everything changed. There was a phase afterwards when I was getting starts but not converting them (against South Africa at home in 2015 and against West Indies in 2016), yet I knew I was batting well. I was scoring runs in domestic cricket and it gave me confidence that there is nothing wrong in my technique,” said Pujara.
In that light, the 2016/17 home season was a springboard. In 13 Tests against New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Australia, Pujara scored 1316 runs at 62.66, inclusive of four hundreds and eight half-centuries.
Simply put, he batted and batted, then batted some more. It is a mirror image to what he was able to accomplish in the 2012/13 home season, albeit with a difference. The poor run overseas has hardened him as a cricketer, overall.
It could be seen most in the manner he accumulated runs in the first Test at Galle. While Shikhar Dhawan thrashed Sri Lanka from one end, Pujara quietly brought up his 12th Test hundred.
“You always want to perform better on challenging tracks, like the SSC one in 2015. But I always enjoy scoring. Whenever there is an opportunity to score a Test hundred, you might as well take it and score as many runs as possible,” he said, after scoring 153 on day two in Galle, re-affirming his penchant for runs, if at all there was any doubt.