The big plan: Learning from loaning Saudi

Saudi Arabia celebrate making it to next year’s World Cup. It is hoped several of the players get to play in Europe before the tournament in Russia. (AP)
Updated 23 October 2017
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The big plan: Learning from loaning Saudi

DUBAI: News broke on Sunday about a major plan by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) to send national team players to spend the second half of the season on loan at various European clubs ahead of the Green Falcons’ participation in next year’s World Cup in Russia.
The fine print reveals that the federation along with its government umbrella, the General Sport Authority, are in the process of signing agreements with clubs and leagues across Europe to allow Saudi players the opportunity to test themselves against stronger opponents, week in, week out in the old continent. The first of those agreements was signed with Spain’s La Liga last week.
The ambitious plan is aimed at delivering improved performances in Russia compared to the team’s last three appearances on the global stage, which all ended at the group stage with no wins recorded. The nadir of that run came in 2002 when they were thrashed 8-0 by eventual runners-up Germany.
Eight years earlier, Saudi Arabia had made an impressive World Cup debut, beating Belgium 1-0 courtesy of Saeed Al-Owairan’s iconic solo effort. They went on to reach the knockout stage before leaving the USA with their heads held high after a 3-1 defeat against would-be bronze-medalists Sweden.
The SAFF’s determination to transform the 32-million-people-strong nation into a football powerhouse has seen them take big steps over the past few months; they set up a national scouting committee consisting of legendary former players to roam the country in pursuit of the next generation of top talents.
The scouts’ eyes were also cast on the previously untapped Saudi-born expat players, a key demographic in a country with 12 million expats and many others who were born in the Kingdom before moving on elsewhere.
Former England U-17 midfielder Mukhtar Ali is one of those who were born in Saudi Arabia. Ali’s parents hail from Somalia, but they immigrated to the UK via the Kingdom where he was born. The midfielder has now answered the call of his birthplace and made his debut for the Green Falcons in a 5-1 win over Jamaica, contributing an assist in the process.
The plan to loan out players was met with some raised eyebrows and a certain amount of skepticism. For Saudi clubs’ fans, the main concern is the prospect of going the entire second half of the season without key players. AFC Champions League finalists Al-Hilal are set to be the worst affected as they could find themselves missing as many as 12 players.
The quality of the league could see a serious drop after January, and with it attendance figures. Questions have also been raised about whether a four-month loan spell with a European club could really benefit the players; to put this into perspective, even greats of the game such as Zinedine Zidane and Dennis Bergkamp needed as long as six months to adapt when moving to new leagues.
Those are the possible downsides of the plan; the positives are there for all to see. The new strategy opens the door for players from the Kingdom to make a name for themselves in European football. For all Saudi Arabia’s success on the Asian stage, its players never rivalled those from Japan, South Korea and Iran in moving to top European leagues.
Osama Hawsawi’s one-game spell at Anderlecht and Saeed Al-Muwallad’s controversial switch to Portuguese minnows Farense are hardly inspirational.
To that effect, sources revealed the SAFF has put a plan in place to ensure players only join clubs where they can get game time, rather than warming benches at bigger clubs.
Moreover, should the plan continue beyond the World Cup, it could pay dividends for the national team at the 2019 Asian Cup and for younger generations of Saudis aspiring to reach the glamorous heights of European football.


Why Juventus could prove to be Cristiano Ronaldo's toughest, most rewarding challenge yet

Updated 20 July 2018
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Why Juventus could prove to be Cristiano Ronaldo's toughest, most rewarding challenge yet

  • Portuguese superstar has moved to Italian giants in deal worth nearly $120 million
  • Ronaldo scored 450 goals in 438 games for Real Madrid

LONDON: Love him or loathe him, you have to admire Cristiano Ronaldo’s character.
At a time of life when lesser mortals are lured by big paychecks to the likes of Qatar or China, the mercurial Madeiran has opted for what will be his biggest challenge yet at Juventus.
His career over the last decade has been played out under the cloud of the never-ending debate — “Ronaldo or Messi; who is better?”
Thankfully, that circus was quietened somewhat at the recent World Cup. Some flashes of pure brilliance aside, neither player made a big enough impact to lead their respective teams to glory and Messi’s wait for an international trophy goes on.
And, while both players are undeniably in a league of their own, the fact Ronaldo does have a European Championship title under his belt will always tip the argument toward the Portuguese — especially for those who measure greatness in statistics and trophies.
In fairness, Ronaldo’s statistics are mind-boggling. His stint at Manchester United, where he cut his teeth and started to show his potential as a great of the game, was instrumental in the club winning three Premier League titles and their third European crown. His staggering 450 goals in 438 games for Real Madrid saw him become the Spanish giant’s record goalscorer on his way to winning everything under the sun.
But the Premier League and La Liga are leagues in which attacking footballers flourish. With the dawning of wall-to-wall TV coverage, they have both been transformed to entertain the billions of people who tune in every week — and in this day and age, goalscoring superstars win you fans, not defenses.
The art of defending has all-but disappeared and the culture of building a spine through a team has slowly but surely been eroded away. Nobody wants to watch an engrossing, absorbing, end-to-end goalless draw anymore — it is all about 6-5 thrillers.
But not so in Italy.
Serie A, for all its scandals and fall from grace since its heady days of the 1990s, is still an extremely difficult league to win. It is a league in which fans and managers place great emphasis on defending, on building teams from back-to-front (not the other way around) and on the mentality of “you cannot lose if you don’t concede.”
Granted, Juventus have walked Serie A for the past seven seasons; it is to be expected from one of the richest clubs in the world. But rarely have they won it at a canter. Never once have they scored anywhere near 100 goals in a season to win it — unlike Manchester City in last season’s Premier League, or Barcelona and Real Madrid almost every season in the same period.
And not once has Serie A’s top-goalscorer reached the dizzying heights Ronaldo (and Messi) hit in La Liga season after season, nor has it always been a Juventus player claiming the golden boot.
This all points to a monumental challenge for Ronaldo. On paper, he should not find it as easy to score goals in Serie A and with the marked improvement of Napoli, Roma and Lazio recently, nor will it be an easy ride for Juventus to claim an eighth scudetto in a row this year.
So, while Messi prefers to stay in one country and within his comfort zone of the defense-shy Spanish league, if a 30-something Ronaldo succeeds in Italy — or, better yet, guides Juventus to the European glory the fans crave so much — it would be his most remarkable achievement yet.
And it would put the tiresome debate over who is the greatest ever to bed, once and for all.
No contest.