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.


Rafael Nadal swats aside Kei Nishikori to seal 11th Monte Carlo crown

Updated 12 min 25 sec ago
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Rafael Nadal swats aside Kei Nishikori to seal 11th Monte Carlo crown

Monte Carlo: Rafael Nadal romped to a record-extending 11th Monte Carlo Masters title by brushing aside an outclassed Kei Nishikori in Sunday’s final to retain the world number one ranking.
The 31-year-old saw off Nishikori 6-3, 6-2 to become the first man to win a single tournament 11 times in the Open era with his 76th ATP Tour title.
Nadal’s 31st Masters title is also an outright record, pulling him out of a tie with Novak Djokovic.
The 16-time Grand Slam champion’s era of utter dominance on clay looks unlikely to end any time soon after Nadal took his run of consecutive sets won on the surface to 36.
The Spaniard will next set his sights on an 11th Barcelona Open victory next week, and it is hard to see anyone preventing him from extending his record number of 10 French Open titles at Roland Garros at the end of the clay-court season.
He was pushed by Japan’s Nishikori early on and fell a break down, but roared back against an opponent who already appeared beaten midway through the first set.
It was still an excellent week for former world number four Nishikori, who only returned from a four-month absence with a right wrist injury in January and will rise from his current ranking of 36 to the brink of the top 20.
Nadal got on the board with a strong service hold, before quickly putting Nishikori under pressure as a flicked passing shot brought up break point.
But the Spaniard missed a forehand up the line by a matter of millimeters, with Nishikori clinging on after an 11-minute game that left him looking physically exhausted.
But that hold showed Nadal, who first won the event in 2005, that his opponent was up for the fight.
The top seed was even displaying rare signs of nerves, and Nishikori broke for a 2-1 lead with a backhand up the line after a Nadal double fault.
But he failed to build on that glimmer of an opening, double faulting himself on break-back point.
That costly error knocked the early aggression out of the 28-year-old’s groundstrokes, and Nadal sped through the next two games to take command of the first set.
Nishikori forced a break point in the seventh game but fired long with the court wide open as Nadal kept his nose in front.
He struggled a little to serve out the opener, but although Nishikori saved one set point with an exquisite backhand volley, Nadal clinched it on the second with a punch of the air celebrating a pair of blistering forehands.
Nishikori was staring down the barrel of defeat at the start of the second set, but staved off a break point to hold serve.
But the last rites had long been written, and Nadal broke to 15 in each of the Japanese’s next two service games to close on victory.
The greatest player to ever step foot on a clay court secured his 24th Masters title on the surface with a venomous backhand that flew past the hapless Nishikori.