Ismail Matar: What I've Learned
I grew up with four older brothers and we were all obsessed with football. When you play with bigger and stronger guys you have to learn to think quicker and be faster.
There was no professional league in the UAE when I started. Things then were built around community and not business, so most of us thought that we would just stay with one club our entire career. We never even considered that we could play for a team outside of our country. The launch of the UAE professional league in 2008 changed the mentality and motivation of the next generation.
I was captain of the UAE when we won the Gulf Cup in 2007. It was the proudest moment of my life. To captain the team that won the first major trophy in the country’s history? That is something that will always stay with me. For me, it may as well have been the World Cup.
In that tournament I remember losing the first game to Oman. It was the first time that we had lost the opening game of the tournament, and I remember making sure that our heads didn’t drop. I told the team to remember that feeling of disappointment because we didn’t want to feel it again. I told them it was going to be the last game we lost in the tournament, and it was.
When you are a football-obsessed kid, you dream of playing for your country. At club level, only one set of supporters cheer for you, but when you represent your flag it unifies the fans and all of a sudden we are not footballers but we are ambassadors of the country with everyone joining behind us. It gives you a lot of pride.
My father passed away the day before the Gulf Cup in 2009. That was a very difficult time for me, but it was a moment
that changed the way I thought about life and football. If you are unhappy in your work, you will be unhappy in other aspects of your life. I realized that I was blessed to have the opportunity I had, so I was going to be more focused on giving everything I had—you do not want to have regrets.
I always seem to get injured in December! In the recent Asian Cup I had to play in a protective face mask because I had a broken bone in my cheek.
I enjoy responsibility, but being the captain is not easy. You are expected to lead by example and also to motivate the other players, which can be difficult when you are talking to players who are 10 or 15 years younger than you, and have different values.
The UAE has a good generation of youngsters coming through, but it is important that they are nurtured with the right mentality. There are a lot of distractions today compared to when I was their age. I see it as my duty to help change the culture and guide them as people.