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.


Mahrez and Mane duel in rematch for Africa Cup of Nations glory

Updated 54 min 48 sec ago
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Mahrez and Mane duel in rematch for Africa Cup of Nations glory

  • Algerian star Mahrez was part of the Manchester City team that edged out Mane’s Liverpool for the English title last season
CAIRO: Riyad Mahrez and Sadio Mane will renew their Premier League rivalry for a second time in Egypt, with Africa Cup of Nations immortality awaiting the victor of Friday’s final between Algeria and Senegal.
Algerian star Mahrez was part of the Manchester City team that edged out Mane’s Liverpool for the English title last season, grabbing a pivotal goal on the final day of the campaign.
Liverpool standout Mane, however, is attempting to fulfill his “wildest dream” as one of just a handful of Africans to win both the UEFA Champions League and Cup of Nations.
For the marquee name in a Senegalese side ranked top of the continent, and a surprising 46 places above Algeria, the ride to the final for Mane and the Teranga Lions has encountered its share of roadbumps.
Two missed Mane spot-kicks, a group stage loss to Algeria, and the loss of goalkeeper Edouard Mendy to a broken finger have tested Senegal’s resolve in their quest for the Holy Grail of African football.
Coach Aliou Cisse is on a mission for personal redemption. He was the skipper of the side beaten on penalties in the 2002 final, with his missed kick handing the title to Cameroon.
“Having lost that final, I still have it on my mind,” said former Paris Saint-Germain and Birmingham City midfielder Cisse.
“What motivated me to become a coach was to be able to take Senegal to the final. My players told me they would do better than my generation.”
A maiden Cup of Nations for his country is a prize for which Mane readily admitted he would trade in last month’s Champions League title.
“I’m ready to even swap a Champions League for a Cup of Nations. Going to Dakar with the trophy would be extraordinary. It would be my wildest dream,” Mane told France Football ahead of the competition.
Standing in the way, however, is an Algerian outfit that has undergone a remarkable transformation since the arrival of Djamel Belmadi as coach a year ago.
The Desert Foxes failed miserably in World Cup qualifying, but the steely Belmadi has healed divisions in the squad to lead them to the brink of a first Cup of Nations triumph since 1990.
“To the Algerian people, I want to say I’m not a politician, not a miracle worker or a wizard, but that we will fight like we have fought to this point,” Belmadi said after the semifinal win over Nigeria.
Algeria are the leading scorers in Egypt with 12 goals, including Mahrez’s spectacular last-gasp free-kick against Nigeria, and haven’t trailed at all in the tournament.
“Algeria are so well organized, so compact, so ‘Guardiolaesque’ in the way they recover the ball,” opined experienced international coach Claude Le Roy. “Perhaps it is the influence of Mahrez.”
The Algeria captain has been in fine form for his country here, brimming with confidence after helping City to the domestic treble.
“We are very happy to be in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations because it is something very special,” said Mahrez.
“It was our goal to do it for the people and for our families. We know they are behind us all the way. It’s my dream to win the Cup of Nations.”
“It’s going to be another battle against Senegal,” he added. “We’ve been very good in this competition. The (Nigeria) match has given us more confidence for the final and we’re capable of winning it.”
Their hopes will boosted by the absence of Senegal’s defensive rock Kalidou Koulibaly, whose yellow card in the semifinal victory over Tunisia cruelly ruled the Napoli star out of the final.
“It hurts to not be able to play. But I will be beside my brothers to write history,” tweeted Koulibaly, the cornerstone of a defense breached just once so far.