Hunger to win keeps UAE focused on U-17 World Cup

The Holy Month of Ramadan is not just a time of prayer and abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours, but a time when family and general community togetherness are priority.

But for the young men in the UAE U-17 football squad, it was a time of sacrifice and hard work as they spent it away from home immersed in an intensive training camp, which started in Turkey in late June and will end in Spain just weeks before their FIFA U-17 World Cup campaign gets under way in October.

They therefore had only themselves and coaching staff to call family, and apart from a short break home for Eid, this will pretty much continue for the next two months.

At times like these one can see the benefit of social media, and their strength and conditioning coach Karim Malouche says when they’re not on the field, in the gym, or spending quality time getting to know their peers, they’re thumbing away at smartphones to keep loved ones abreast of every single moment – a small reminder that, despite the gargantuan task ahead, they are still just teenagers.

To not be able to eat or drink during daylight hours too was obviously a bit of a hiccup in Malouche’s task to get the young squad in tip-top shape ahead of the Cup, and they had to limit training to just two hours each evening after a carb-and-multivitamin-heavy Iftar to make sure they were quickly fuelled to get going immediately.

But it seems the boys’ hunger to succeed on the world stage by far overshadowed any growling stomachs and parched lips and they’ve successfully skirted that “disadvantage”, with coaches constantly checking in to make sure that bodies weren’t being overworked or strained, just maintained.

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“No injuries so far, thank goodness, just a bit of sore muscles as it’s only been the first leg of the camp,” shared Malouche while in Turkey.

“It also helps that the staff are organised – we have meetings before each session and discuss the training programmes of each individual player so we all know what loads to administer and control everything they do carefully. We also make sure to keep checking in, asking them how they feel, what they feel… we are always cautious.

“Recovery anyway is well considered and in a typical week they have three to four sessions of swimming, stretching, yoga… plus after matches the guys do ice baths, massage or electro-stimulation (muscle contractions via electrodes on the calves to make the blood circulate faster and speed up the recovery process).”

Proof that quality of what goes into a training session can certainly compete with the quantity of hours one puts in? Just look at their 5-0 trouncing of one of Turkey’s leading clubs, Besiktas, while at camp there.

“I was observing them – physically, technically, tactically – during that match, and to be honest they were quite fit,” says Malouche. “I think that, despite the short time we had in Ramadan, the staff and I have done a very good job to make the team reach the level that they are at now. Honestly, I never saw my players as motivated as this.

“At this age it’s not easy to make them realise the importance of the tournament. But I see their motivation, they really want it, they want to win. They’re aware that to be playing in the World Cup at age 17, that’s not a chance that comes everyday… and it might not come again in their lives, you never know.

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“Obviously, they miss their families, but being in this camp for so long means we all become each other’s family – we sit with the players, chat, laugh, go out, the staff try to make a family atmosphere in the team to make them more comfortable,” adds Malouche.

It’s a bit of a juggling act the coaching staff have to perform, but at some point the paternal mask has to come off so the whistle can come out, and with Ramadan over, that time is now.

“They need to be stressed because stress is adrenaline and they need a little bit of that for this kind of competition. At the same time we’re trying to maintain a balance between positive stress and the importance of the game, and keeping calm and relaxed too.”

The U-17s are now in Malaysia for the next leg of their now-intensified camp with their first friendly expected to take place on the 17th, against Malaysia themselves.

With just a few days to prepare, Malouche sees the encounter as a good fitness test, “especially because we’re intentionally playing Asian teams a year older than our squad so they can benefit from that physical and mental confrontation”.

“In the World Cup we’ll be confronted with big, physically tough teams so for me a big emphasis now will be on having fit and tough players. My priorities will be strength training and injury prevention.”

At the same time, however, the more time they spend in camp, the more friendlies they will play – Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore are next before even bigger meetings, including Russia and Ivory Coast, when they get to Spain – meaning the less time they have to work on such areas, explains Malouche.

“They’re not as ready as I would like them to be, we need more time to work on speed, endurance, flexibility… it’s not that they don’t have it at all, but these things really matter in the World Cup. So I hope to get more time to focus on those points while we’re here.”

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