Saudi referee chief’s goal to relegate foreign officials

Howard Webb, second right, at a referee training camp held in the Czech Republic. (Photo courtesy of Howard Webb)
Updated 30 December 2016
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Saudi referee chief’s goal to relegate foreign officials

Across 10 days in May, Slovenia’s Damir Skomina went from refereeing a Champions League semifinal at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium to officiating in front of 409 fans in Saudi Arabia’s top division.
The Saudi Pro League relegation decider between Najran and Al-Raed was one of 22 top-flight matches last season marshaled by leading European referees, appointed at clubs’ request. And Saudi Arabia’s refereeing boss Howard Webb faces a tough task to convince the Kingdom’s fanatical supporters that local officials are up to the job.
The appointment of Webb in August 2015 is part of a push to re-establish three-time Asian champions Saudi Arabia among the continent’s football elite following a sustained decline at both club and international level.
“The first thing I recognized was the passion everyone has for football. It seems to be almost an obsession, which dominates life here, particularly for young men,” said the UK-born Webb.
Webb, who is director of refereeing at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, has vast experience in the field, having refereed both the 2010 World Cup and Champions League finals.

‘Fans never forgive the referee’
Riyadh and Jeddah clubs have historically dominated Saudi Arabia’s league, claiming 37 of 40 titles between them. Local derbies play to crowds that can top 60,000 and clubs often doubt local referees can handle such a frenzied atmosphere. As a result, they can request foreign referees for up to five of their 13 home league fixtures each season.
“Fans in general don’t appreciate referees can make mistakes because they are human,” said Yasser Al-Misehal, chief executive of the fiercely competitive Saudi Professional League, which has been won by six different clubs in the past eight seasons.
“A striker can miss a chance and fans would forgive the player because they love them. They never forgive the referee. Some immediately think this referee made the mistake intentionally. The media in some cases accuse the referees of not being able to handle pressure. Sometimes referees do make bad mistakes, especially when the stadium is full.”
Last season’s foreign officials included three of the last four Champions League final referees.
Webb, who is pushing to cut the number of matches foreigners officiate, says the reliance on overseas refs comes at the expense of local talent.
“It does stunt our guys because they’re not exposed to the biggest games in Saudi,” he told Arab News.
“Here, it seems to be that referees no matter what happens are newsworthy and with that comes some pressure.
“When a mistake is made by a local guy, people here want to talk about it, draw conclusions as to why that mistake is made. When the same mistake is made by an international guy they just put down it to human error.”
Webb was technical director for England’s professional refereeing body before accepting a three-year contract to oversee the Saudi equivalent. His task is to ensure Saudi referees receive the best training.
“We’re using various analysis systems to make sure we track the performance of our guys,” said Webb, who spends about 12 days a month in Saudi Arabia and oversees referee appointments.
“Some of it comes down to a feeling as well — just as a football manager will get a good feeling about a player, I might get a good feeling about a certain referee’s ability.”

Recognizing talent
Only 18 Saudi referees took charge of top-flight games last season, but the kingdom has more than 1,000 referees officiating at all levels.
“I’ve got to make sure we’ve got people in place who can recognize talent further down, help with mentoring and the instructing of those people and bring them through so they’re equipped to deal with the top league,” said Webb.
One means to ease the pressure on referees is to announce match officials only a few days beforehand, rather than weeks in advance as previously.
“Over the course of the season we’ve seen the numbers of mistakes reduce and some of that is down to the instructions I’ve given,” said Webb, who described Saudi referees’ knowledge of football laws as equal to that of their European counterparts.
“There’s always that balance between managing situations and being consistent because whenever you ask a referee to manage a situation you’re asking him to use his own interpretation of what’s happening … to use some flexibility and not be rigid. The same situation in the first minute or the 61st minute can be dealt with quite differently.”

Full-time refs
The league aims to introduce full-time referees, starting with between three and five officials.
“In terms of attitude, they’re professional anyway,” said Webb. “It’s just trying to match that attitude with their status.”
Saudi’s football authorities hope better refereeing will accelerate the renaissance of both the domestic game and the national team, which qualified for four successive World Cup finals from 1994 to 2006, but then entered a prolonged malaise.
From being ranked 21st in the world in 2004, the Kingdom’s national football team slumped to an all-time low of 126th in 2012, although a steady improvement has lifted the “Green Falcons” to 54th and the fifth-best in Asia behind Iran, South Korea, Japan and Australia.
The national team are through to the final group stage of Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, lying joint-top after five matches although only a point separates them, Japan, Australia and the United Arab Emirates. First and second qualify, while third enters a lengthy play-off process.

Money talks
Money rules in football and Saudi’s top division is getting richer. About a decade ago its television deal was worth SR 20 million ($5.33 million) per season; the current contract, which runs to 2023, nets SR 360 million annually. That’s chump change when compared with Europe’s leading leagues, but is among the best in Asia.
“We’re working hard to improve the level of the Saudi league,” said Misehal, whose other initiatives include extending online ticketing to between four and six other stadiums. Currently, this is only available at Jeddah’s $560 million King Abdullah Sports City stadium.
Per season, clubs’ individual sponsorship deals also net about SR 650 million and the league sponsors pay a further SR 140 million.
This wealth hasn’t yet transferred into higher achievement on the pitch — Saudi clubs’ performance in the Asian Champions League (ACL) this year was their worst since the continent’s most prestigious club competition expanded to 32 teams in 2009.
Historically, however, only Japan and South Korea have a more illustrious ACL pedigree and Saudi’s aim is to become one of the world’s top 20 leagues.
“I can see them achieving that,” said Webb. “It’s an attacking style of football, quite open… entertaining games. It’s not cagey, defensive-minded football, which is good for spectators and the TV audience.”


‘Good, but not good enough’: Juan Antonio Pizzi on Saudi Arabia’s defeat to Uruguay

Updated 20 June 2018
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‘Good, but not good enough’: Juan Antonio Pizzi on Saudi Arabia’s defeat to Uruguay

  • A Luis Suaréz goal midway through the first half gave Uruguay a 1-0 win
  • Pizzi had spoken passionately about the need for his side to demonstrate a higher level of focus and performance

ROSTOV-ON-DON: Good, but not good enough.
That was what Juan Antonio Pizzi stated as he declared himself pleased with his team’s performance in the 1-0 defeat to Uruguay on Wednesday night.
But he lamented his side’s lack of firepower as they exited the World Cup after just two matches.
Pizzi had spoken passionately about the need for his side to demonstrate a higher level of focus and performance in Rostov-on-Don after losing their opening game 5-0 to hosts Russia in Moscow last week.
The Argentine got his wish with a display that saw the Green Falcons fight throughout and edge possession against a Uruguay side ranked 14th in the world.
A Luis Suaréz goal midway through the first half after poor goalkeeping from Mohammed Al-Owais, however, was enough to hand the Green Falcons a 12th successive World Cup defeat.
The result means that even with a win against Egypt on Monday, the Green Falcons are no longer capable of progressing to the knock-out stages from Group A.
“We had a lot of ball possession and were able to impose our style of play and distribution,” said Pizzi. “We conceded a goal from a random play and didn’t have the weapons or tools to try to equalize. We kept the ball well and weren’t really troubled defensively, but lacked that ability to score.”
Indeed, for all their possession, Saudi Arabia have managed just three shots on target in 180 minutes of football. Against Russia, they failed to muster a single effort on target and the managed just three against Uruguay, two of which came in the final minutes when they knew they had to score or face elimination. None of the three shots came from a striker.
“This is our weakness. We have good ball possession, but no effectiveness. We lack the depth and skill required to win these games,” Pizzi added. “We have that deficiency and have looked for solutions, but we haven’t quite come up with one yet. But that is one of the reasons great forward are in high demand and are the elite players in world football.”
Pizzi had made four changes ahead of the match, dropping goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf in favor of Al-Owais and introducing Ali Al-Bulayhi at the heart of the defense alongside Osama Hawsawi. Further upfield, Hattan Bahberi came in for Yahya Al-Shehri and Fahad Al-Muwallad replaced Mohammed Al-Sahlawi. The changes, particularly the inclusion of Bahberi, seemed to give the side more impetus in midfield.
“The difference between the performance in the first game and this game is enormous,” Pizzi said. “The only way to compete at this level is to play at the level we did here. And even then it was not enough even to get a draw. Undoubtedly there were other factors aside from the pressure of playing in the opening game that made a difference, but it’s true that the difference was enormous.”
Many critics had predicted a deluge of goals from the likes of Suarez and Cavani, yet both were kept at bay. Save for a couple of half-chances early on, neither came close to scoring until the 23rd minute.
A corner from Carlos Sanchez sailed into the area and when Al-Owais came for it but failed to connect with his punch, Barcelona forward Suaréz was left with the simplest of tap-ins. He was so caught off-guard, he actually looked surprised as he reeled away in celebration.
“I believe you cannot be relaxed in any match,” Suarez said when asked by a Uruguayan journalist whether he had taken it easy against the Saudis.
“We wanted to win and to progress to the knock-out stage and this game simply showed how difficult it is. That’s the World Cup for you though and we are obviously delighted with how we have performed so far to progress.”
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez did not share his striker’s sentiments.
“Saudi Arabia wanted to excel and give a better account of themselves after losing to Russia,” he said.
“They did that very well and we have to respect them. But what surprised me the most is how we played. We underperformed.”