Liverpool’s Phillips gets chance to make Champions League debut

Ismail Matar’s wonder goal hints at a final glorious chapter in a storied career

DUBAI: On Wednesday night, Khor Fakkan will host Al Wahda in the fourth round of the fledgling 2020-21 Arabian Gulf League season. Usually, it is not necessarily a match-up that would catch the imagination of many casual fans.

But these are not usual times. And Al Wahda captain Ismail Matar is not a usual player.

Last Friday, the UAE legend, at 37, scored a goal for the ages, perhaps the finest of his storied career.

It’s not that it was a goal that some might have thought was beyond him. It’s a goal that should be beyond most players.

As half-time approached at Al Nahyan Stadium and Matar received the ball just inside his own half and set off on a run, there seemed to be little danger yet for the soon to be bewildered Shabab Al Ahli players.

What followed could have come straight out of 2007.

Matar was the first to react to Yousif Jaber’s loose ball in midfield and his first touch left Azizjon Ganiev in his wake. His second saw him tap the ball to Mohammed Jaber’s right and skip around his left.

Even once reunited with the ball, not many could have expected what was coming.

Matar’s next touch saw him bisect the space between the retreating Mohammed Marzooq and the now chasing Ganiev, and cut onto his left foot. It was already an astonishing run by the former UAE captain, and few would have forgiven the veteran if he had looked to slip the ball to one of his two supporting teammates, Tim Matavž and Tahnoon Al Zaabi.

But there is a reason why many still consider Matar the greatest Emirati talent of all time, even bigger than golden boy Omar Abdulrahman. Even as he approaches the end of his career, he still possesses a football intelligence and awareness that few of his contemporaries can match. Crucially, he still possesses the touch.

With a swing of his left foot he curled an unstoppable shot past a flat-footed Majed Naser in Shabab Al Ahli’s goal.

The wonderfully eloquent Emirati commentator Fares Awad is not a stranger to the odd bout of hyperbole, but here, even his incredulous shouts barely did the goal justice.

“Impossible, impossible,” he screamed his famous trademark. Not for Matar, who has made it his mission to continuously prove people wrong every time it looks like his best days are behind him.


The way Matar had brutally sliced through Shabab Al Ahli’s team evoked memories of George Weah’s famous goal for AC Milan against Verona in 1996, or Michael Owen’s memorable effort for England against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup in France. And even Leo Messi would have been proud of that left-footed finish.

It was a shame that this goal would not end up being the winner - Ganiev equalized with a brilliant free kick in the second half - or that Matar’s adoring Al Wahda supporters were not there to see it in the flesh.

Still, this goal was not going to be as secret for too long. On social media, despite predictable criticism of Shabab Al Ahli’s defending, many homebound fans and pundits immediately fell over themselves to hail a resurrected hero.

Abu Dhabi Sports TV called it “Maradona-esque”, and Al Wahda’s Serbian coach Vuk Rašović was gushing in his praise too.

“Ismail Matar plays wonderful football and I am lucky to have him as a player in my team,” he said.

Indeed, both Al Wahda and the UAE have been lucky to have his services since he made his breakthrough as a 17-year-old in the 2000-01 season. And long before Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout were urged to seek careers in Europe, Matar was the first Emirati superstar deemed good enough to make that big move abroad. But apart from one brief loan spell at Al Sadd in 2009 he has remained loyal to the claret shirt, in which he has won three League titles and a President’s Cup as recently as 2017-18.

At international level, it’s been quite the journey for Matar. In 2003 he announced himself to the world by winning the best player at the FIFA World Youth Championship in the UAE, a tournament that included future Spanish World Cup winner Andrés Iniesta, no less. Four years later he singlehandedly landed the UAE the 2007 Gulf Cup, the nation’s first ever senior trophy. And in 2013, a weeping Matar was held on the shoulders of his teammates as he led Mahdi Ali’s Golden generation to a second Gulf Cup triumph in Manama.

By 2015, at 32, he was thought to have left his best days behind him as the UAE finished 3rd at the AFC Asian Cup in Australia, a tournament he missed. Injuries have often plagued him in later years, reducing his playing time considerably.

But now, he might have just scored the finest goal of his career. Perhaps there is one more glorious chapter left to be written before he walks into the sunset.

On Wednesday night, before Manchester United, Barcelona, PSG and Juventus swing into Champions League action, it might just be worth tuning in to Al Wahda’s visit to Khor Fakkan. You just might witness another wonder goal from one of the greatest Arab talents to ever grace a football pitch.

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