'Let me fulfill my Euro dream'
The Emirates' most eminent footballer, Ismail Mattar, has spoken for the first time about the frustration he feels playing in the Pro League.
The 25-year-old, an attacking midfielder with Abu Dhabi-based Al Wahda Club, has long expressed his desire to play abroad, particularly in Spain.
And yet, despite The Excellencies' dismal decline from 2005 league champions to 2009 relegation contenders, Mattar – shortlisted in 2008 for the Asian Player of the Year award – continues to turn out at the Al Nahyan Stadium.
Speaking exclusively to Emirates Business, however, the nucleus of the UAE national team revealed he longs to leave his native land to experience Europe, and added he endures the Emirates only because he has no choice.
"I will stay at Al Wahda because I don't have the chance to go," he says. "The club wants to keep me and I still have two years on my contract. What can I do? I have signed the contract so I need to stay.
"After two years, when my contract expires, I think I can leave. But until then Wahda won't discuss my contract or anything. They tell me they want to keep me."
Mattar, voted Player of the Tournament at the 2003 Fifa World Youth Championships and top goalscorer at the Gulf Cup four years later, would likely command a reasonable transfer fee.
But the Abu Dhabi-born star says any potential fees are rendered irrelevant by the club. "Money is not an issue for Al Wahda," he says. "They have enough."
Mattar toured Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium last summer while in Spain recovering from injury. And while he has previously proclaimed his dream would be to play for the Catalan club, the diminutive dynamo is quick to add he is realistic when it comes to prospective paymasters.
"From my side, I am looking to improve personally and I am looking to prove myself in another country, not just Spain," he says.
"I want to play in Europe because I still have to improve some skills and get some experience."
Mattar had hoped that with the etisalat League undergoing an overhaul this season – in August it was reintroduced as the UAE Pro League; a professionally run competition – his need to emigrate from the Emirates might be lessened.
But he says that, aside from a slightly higher spectator turnout and increased media exposure, there has not been any major improvements.
"If you play here, you will stay the same," he says ruefully. "If you don't stay the same, you definitely won't improve, instead your level will drop because there is nothing new here to learn.
"The UAE Football Federation [is the biggest problem in the sport here]. They don't have a professional mind and must begin to understand football more."
Mattar's condemnation of the lack of competition in his home country is furthered when asked about compatriot Ahmed Khalil.
The Al Ahly striker, voted Asian Young Player of the Year in 2008 after helping the UAE win the AFC Under-19s Championships, has found himself catapulted into the spotlight.
Mattar can relate to the hype hounding the young Emirati: He himself exploded on to the international scene when his strike against Australia sent the UAE into the quarter-finals of the World Youth Championships.
Now the maturer Mattar is ready to help Khalil's career prosper – and that, he says, means escaping the UAE as soon as possible.
"Ahmed is a good player. He is young and has a great chance to play in Europe," says Mattar.
"I appreciate the expectations that are now on his shoulders. I have been there, so I told him: 'You have to go, this is the right time to transfer to Europe. Don't make the same mistake I made. You have to start now'."
When asked to confirm that by signing a long-term deal with Wahda, Mattar felt he had hindered his own development, the response is unequivocal: "Yes."
And he is not the only person to feel this way.
AC Milan midfielder Clarence Seedorf, while in the UAE for the Dubai Football Challenge in January, met with Mattar and explained to him that to grow as a player, he must leave.
The four-time Champions League winner also, according to Mattar, offered to arrange a move to a "good European club".
Even Josef Hickersberger, the Wahda manager, has spoken of how Mattar would benefit if he could leave his domestic side.
"I hope he will get the chance to play in Europe," the Austrian was quoted as saying recently. "I am 100 per cent sure with his qualities, that he can do well if he gets the chance to play outside of this country."
With Wahda sitting precariously close to the relegation zone, and Mattar being the club's second highest goalscorer this season – he has six in 14 matches – it is highly unlikely Hickersberger, however, will have to deal with life without his pivotal playmaker any time soon.
Adidas' Arab Tie-Up
Mattar signed a one-year extension to his adidas contract this week. The deal, now entering its fourth year, is a rolling contract.
Mattar said: "I am honoured to extend my partnership with adidas and to stand alongside the global champions, mainly the adidas F50 superstar Lionel Messi."
Eduard Massier, Marketing and Business Development Director at adidas Emerging Markets said: "Mattar is one of the Arab athletes who have excelled in their sport. We are honoured to re-sign with him."
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