Ismail Matar is arguably the most talented young player in the UAE team and an idolised star in his homeland. Matthew Pomroy spoke to him ahead of the biggest test of his short career, the up-and-coming friendly against Brazil.
It’s not often you get the chance to meet your heroes. It’s even more of a rarity that you get an opportunity to test yourself against them while 47,000 people watch you. But on November 12 in Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports Stadium, 22-year-old Ismail Matar will do just that, pulling on the football shirt of the United Arab Emirates and stepping out to face the Brazilian national side. He’ll compete against the best team in the world, and his hero Ronaldinho, while simultaneously carrying the hopes of his own country as the UAE’s star player.
Right now though, it’s gone 10pm at the Al Wahda Sports Club and Ismail’s just finished training. Still wearing his shorts and shirt and sitting in the big padded chair of the club secretary’s office, he looks more of a young boy than a national hero. Tonight’s training was all about preparation for his club’s next match as they try to defend the title they won last season. But just the mention of the Brazil team causes a huge grin to spread across Ismail’s face. ‘To play against Brazil will be like a dream,’ he says excitedly. ‘They have so much skill, they enjoy having the ball, and the midfield and forwards can make so many chances for each other. It’s such a good side with so many good players, so it will be a very good test for us.’
For a man of 22, about to play the best side on the planet, you’d think there might be a few anxieties building up, but he’s not fazed. ‘No, I’m not really nervous,’ he admits rather nonchalantly. ‘This is something that may only happen one time in my whole life. I have to concentrate and really show what I can do.’ The diminutive forward has been showing what he can do for quite some time now. Ismail made his first-team debut for Al Wahda when he was just 15 and his prodigious talents have already been showcased to the world. He was one of three candidates nominated for the 2003 Asian Young Player of the Year and was awarded the Golden Ball as Player of the Tournament at the 2003 World Youth Championships.
With the UAE as host nation, the tricky attacker captained the side and practically ran the show, at times appearing to be playing in midfield and up front simultaneously. Then UAE coach Jean- Francois Jodar said of Ismail before the tournament: ‘It’s like having Zinedine Zidane in the French team. With his presence and play, he increases the confidence level in the squad.’ High praise indeed, and not far short of the mark.
By winning the Player of the Tournament at a FIFA World Youth Championship, Ismail joined a list of previous winners that includes the likes of Javier Saviola (2001) and Nicolas Olivera (1997) from recent tournaments, as well as luminaries such as the sublime Robert Prosinecki (1987) from earlier competitions. Saviola is on the books at Barcelona (although currently on loan at Seville) while the 2005 winner was Lionel Messi (also at Barcelona) who is being hailed as the best thing to come out of Argentina since some young lad called Diego Maradona won the same trophy in 1979. So has membership of this illustrious club put Ismail under any pressure to succeed? He just shrugs: ‘It was very good for me to win it, especially with other players there like [the Brazilian’s] Duda and Daniel who are now playing with a big club. It was also good for the team and for me especially, because there was pressure on us and we showed what we can really do.’
Duda and Daniel have been snapped up by CSKA Moscow, but Ismail’s not jealous – he’s confident that one day he’ll be making his name on the big stages of the European leagues. ‘Of course, you always want to better yourself and I would love to play there,’ he says. ‘In Europe the teams have great players from many countries, so every day you are training with them and improving your own standard of play.
However, here, in our league I think that in two or three years it will be much better.’ Where would the dream move be? ‘Well you can’t expect to go to the big teams straight away, but my dream would be to one day play for either AC Milan or Barcelona. They are my favourite European clubs, and maybe, inshallah, it will happen.’ He smiles again and rocks back in the chair before (literally) putting his feet back on the ground and adding, ‘but I have to prove myself by playing well for the team now.’
He says that his performances this season have been ‘sometimes good, sometimes bad’ but he’s set himself lofty targets for the coming months. ‘My aim for this season is to qualify for the Asian Cup with the national team as well as winning the title with Al Wahda. It’s only near the start of our league season and things are OK, sometimes not so well. We have tough games coming up but we are still to show our best.’ And with local rivals Al Ain making it to the Asian Champions League final he admits there were a few pangs of jealousy. ‘But we will be there next year, inshallah,’ he predicts confidently, and adds that he’s positive that the UAE will make it to the 2010 World Cup, after the disappointment of missing out on Germany 2006: ‘Yes I think we’ll make it, but it won’t be easy, South Korea and Saudi Arabia are very strong.’
Until then he’s happy to follow the footballer’s mantra of taking each game as it comes and doing his best to fulfil the role of national hero. He seems down to earth about the attention, if sometimes a little surprised. ‘When I go shopping people recognise me and come up to say hello. Children want to wear my shirt and take my shoes! But I just try to do my best and it’s good for the country that I have support.’
With the country’s support behind their young leading light, should Brazil be nervous about having to play against him? ‘I’m not so sure,’ he chuckles. ‘I just want to get on the pitch with them.’ He says his favourite player is Ronaldinho and if the Brazilian plays on November 12, Ismail would dearly love to swap shirts at the end of the game. During the match, however, there’ll be no time for stargazing and Ismail knows that this will be the biggest test of his career so far. Still, maybe the star player of the UAE team could show Ronaldinho a few tricks of his own? He laughs and gently nods in agreement. ‘I’ll try…’
For Time Out magazine – for original PDF click here – Ismail Matar