Saudi football is ready to shine again

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Al Hilal’s Salem Al-Dawsari has been one of the driving forces behind both his club and country’s recent success. (AFP)
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The Green Falcons are heading back to the World Cup for the first time since 2006. (AP)
Updated 19 October 2017
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Saudi football is ready to shine again

LONDON: On Tuesday Al-Hilal strode into the AFC Champions League final with a 6-2 aggregate thrashing of Iran titans Persepolis. While the excitement felt by the many passionate Al-Hilal fans is easy to understand, the fact is every Saudi should jump for joy that the team from Riyadh went through as, along with World Cup qualification, it signals that football in the Kingdom is back at the top table.
On the eve of the 2006 World Cup, a high-ranking member of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation told this writer that when Saudi Arabia are strong then Asian football is strong. That is debatable but for all that has happened in 2017, this will be remembered as the year the country took back its position as the premier West Asian Arabian football nation from the UAE. A welcome change from most of the past decade or so, when Saudi football was stuck on the substitutes bench — never shining on the best stage.
Recently it has been the UAE who have been have been the poster boys for West Asia, with Omar Abdulrahman their shining star. The silkiest of playmakers, ironically born in Riyadh, has a supporting cast that includes the devastating strike force of Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout. If it was thrilling to watch the Whites play, it was almost as exciting to watch the team slowly develop.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia lurched from defeat to crisis after a highly successful period. Having failed to make the 1990 World Cup, the last, and first, time the UAE made it, the Green Falcons took to the competition with American relish in 1994, becoming the first Asian team since North Korea in 1966 to reach the knockout stage. Saeed Al-Owairan’s slalom run against Belgium secured a place in the last 16 and gave the tournament one of its greatest goals.
There then came three more appearances and by the end of 2007, the team had reached every Asian Cup final since 1984, with the exception of 2004. It then all started to go wrong.
The 2010 World Cup was narrowly missed but decline was confirmed when the team did not even reach the final round of qualification for Brazil, crashing out along with the likes of Tajikistan and Singapore.
Sandwiched between were the disasters of the 2011 and 2015 Asian Cups and their early exits. The Saudi football national team had reached a low point.
Club football was better but not at previous heights. A decade ago, Al-Ittihad of Jeddah were the benchmark for all of Asia. The Tigers’ success in winning the AFC Champions League in 2004 and 2005 still marks the only back-to-back wins in the tournament’s history.
Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal made the final in 2014, losing to Western Sydney Wanderers, but the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League was doing better. Over the next two years, Al-Ahli and Al-Ain reached the same stage to lose narrowly to stronger teams than Sydney in Guangzhou Evergrande and Jeonbuk Motors.
Now though, the tide is turning. As proved by their victory over Persepolis, Al-Hilal are exciting. There is a strong spine running through the side with goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Owaishir, captain Osama Hawsafi and talented playmaker Nawaf Al-Abed surrounded by talented foreign players.
They will be confident of taking the continental title back to the Kingdom for the first time since 2005. It would be a boost for the national team ahead of the World Cup and there is no reason why they too cannot achieve success.
At the same time, the UAE’s failure to qualify for next year’s World Cup, and, apart from that win in Japan last year, never really getting close, means that the so-called golden generation is at risk of never appearing on the world stage.
For Saudi Arabia even Bert Van Marwijk’s departure as boss after he guided the Green Falcons to Russia cannot remove the current feel-good factor. The Dutchman has already been replaced by Edgardo Bauza. There are many who feel Van Marwijk should have stayed as manager — the pragmatic Dutchman offered experience, of both the country’s football scene and the World Cup after taking his homeland to the 2010 final.
Despite that, there is a spring in the step of Saudi supporters at the moment. For the first time in 12 years, fans can look forward to a World Cup. With Japan, South Korea and Iran also preparing for Russia, Asia is sending its four traditional powerhouses once more. Back on top of the West Asian pile, it is time for Saudi Arabia to show how strong they really are.


India’s Gautam Gambhir quits as Delhi Daredevils skipper in IPL

Updated 29 min 5 sec ago
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India’s Gautam Gambhir quits as Delhi Daredevils skipper in IPL

  • Delhi have lost five of their first six matches
  • Shreyas Iyer takes over from Gambhir

NEW DELHI: Gautam Gambhir on Wednesday stepped down as captain of Indian Premier League side Delhi Daredevils after they lost five of their first six matches in this year’s Twenty20 tournament.
Mumbai batsman Shreyas Iyer has been appointed the new captain of a side that lies bottom of the eight-team table in the cash-rich league.
Gambhir, who led Kolkata Knight Riders to two IPL titles in 2012 and 2014, was bought by Daredevils for $418,320 in the January auction and subsequently made skipper ahead of the 2018 season.
But the left-handed opener failed to inspire the Daredevils in the first half of the IPL. He has scored just 85 runs in five innings.
“I take full responsibility for where we are at the points table,” Gambhir told reporters in New Delhi.
“I felt this was the right time because we still have a chance. Absolutely my decision. No pressure from the franchise.
“Maybe I was too desperate to turn things around...I was sitting alone and thinking, I couldn’t handle the pressure... I was not good enough and that is all,” said the 36-year-old Gambhir.
Daredevils coach Ricky Ponting congratulated Gambhir for what the former Australian captain called a “tough decision.”
“I think Gautam deserves a lot of credit with the way he has handled this situation,” said Ponting.
“It’s really unheard of in Indian cricket for a senior player to put his hand up and say that I am not playing well enough and for the team’s sake I am going to stand down,” he added.
Gambhir, who played his 58th and most recent Test for India in 2016 against England, has fallen off the selectors’ radar.
Daredevils’ team management said Gambhir will continue as player and mentor for a side still seeking its first title in the glitzy league which began in 2008.
The IPL is now in its 11th season.
There is $8 million in prize money at stake including $4 million for the winning team. The final takes place on May 27 in Mumbai.