Saudi Arabia’s football team out to hit the heights

Saudi Arabia know they face a tough task in trying to overcome Portugal tonight. (AP)
Updated 10 November 2017
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Saudi Arabia’s football team out to hit the heights

VISEU, Portugal: Two South Americans, two Gulf nations, one similar story. But will they end the same?
Ahead of the 1990 World Cup, Carlos Alberto Parreira swapped the managerial reins at Saudi Arabia for the chance to lead the UAE. The venerated Brazilian coach inherited an Emirati squad that had already made history by qualifying for the showpiece tournament and he approached it with the mindset that his players should simply enjoy the occasion. They lost all three games, conceded 11 goals, and Parreira was promptly dismissed.
Twenty-seven years later, a similar situation is playing out once again, only this time it is the UAE that have seen their South American coach switch to their Gulf neighbors. Argentine Edgardo Bauza was with the Emirates for only four months before being selected by the Saudi Arabia Football Federation to lead the Green Falcons at next summer’s World Cup. With the team having already qualified under Bert van Marwijk, Bauza’s task is to ensure his squad is ready to compete in Russia.
Regardless of next summer being the Kingdom’s first World Cup appearance in more than a decade, for Bauza and his players, merely enjoying the occasion is not an option — as Parreira can testify. When the Brazilian returned to the Saudi helm in 1998, he became the first manager to be sacked during a World Cup after overseeing two group-stage defeats. His Argentine counterpart is thus under no illusions with regards to expectations.
Bauza was an unused substitute during the 1990 World Cup final so understands better than most the importance of a deep squad. He has brought an experimental 30-man pool to Portugal for a 12-day training camp he hopes will help decide the 23 players heading for Russia. Parreira also opted for southern Europe for a pre-tournament camp in 1990, but while the UAE lost 4-0 to Poland and 3-0 to Hungary, Bauza’s squad are already showing vastly more potential.
Against Latvia in Lisbon, first-half goals by Ali Al-Zaqan and Mukhtar Fallatah resulted in a comfortable 2-0 win on Tuesday. The squad have since traveled north to Viseu for tonight’s glamor tie against the hosts. Portugal coach Fernando Santos has rested Cristiano Ronaldo, but still boasts the likes of Andre and Bernardo Silva, as well as a Pepe and Bruma. The visitors will return to the capital to finish their camp against Bulgaria on Monday.
The Latvia match was Bauza’s third unofficial game in charge following a 5-2 win over Jamaica and a 3-0 defeat to Ghana last month. The former Argentina coach has already handed debuts to eight players, including Al-Zaqan, the Al-Fateh winger who opened the scoring on Tuesday after a well-worked free-kick involving Al-Ahli duo Abdulfattah Asiri and Mohammed Al-Fatil.
Al-Hilal striker Fallatah has also been brought back into the fold. Despite having failed to score in his previous eight internationals, his clipped finish perfectly complemented Hussain Al-Mogahwi’s defense-splitting pass. It was a strike typical of a forward who scored 16 times for Al-Wehda last season, rather than one who has yet to make a league appearance for Hilal since his transfer in June.
Victory against a team ranked 129th in the world is expected, but tonight’s official friendly against the reigning European champions will provide a better insight into the amount of work Bauza has to do. Known in Argentina as “El Patón” (Big Foot), if he can leave Viseu with at least a draw, it will be a big step forward — and help end comparisons with another South American who crossed the Saudi-UAE divide in a World Cup year.


Saudi Arabia’s Young Falcons through to Asian Games knockout stages despite 3-0 defeat to North Korea

Updated 20 August 2018
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Saudi Arabia’s Young Falcons through to Asian Games knockout stages despite 3-0 defeat to North Korea

  • Young Falcons have wings clipped but still fly into second round after heavy defeat.
  • Saudi Arabia qualify as one of the best third-placed teams.

JAKARTA: From flying high to almost flying home, Saudi Arabia’s Young Falcons came within a goal of going from group leaders to bottom of the table after losing 3-0 to North Korea in their final Group F match at the Asian Games. They ultimately squeaked through as one of the best third-placed teams.
Arriving full of confidence and with one foot already in the knockout stages, coach Saad Al-Shehri rested seven of the 11 players who started the win against Myanmar on Friday. That meant a much-changed back five, with Al-Ittihad’s Amin Al-Bukhari in goal and Al-Ahli duo Mohammed Al-Zubaidi and Mohammed Al-Bassas, both making their Asian Games debuts alongside ever-presents Abdullah Tarmin and Awn Al-Saluli.
The rejig, however, backfired as, inside two minutes and with their first effort on goal, North Korea were ahead. A corner from Kwang-myong Jo was met by the head of Yong-il Kim who directed it past Al-Bukhari with ease while his defenders looked on in confusion; the marking as tight as a wizard’s sleeve.
The Young Falcons had arrived at the Wibawa Mukti Stadium top of Group F and virtually assured of a place in the Round of 16, yet the strike shifted everything. Suddenly, a three-goal Myanmar win against Iran would put the Saudi Arabia’s place in the knockout stages in serious jeopardy. 
The players seemed to understand the consequences of conceding that early goal as nerves took hold. Al-Bukhari, the debutant goalkeeper, allowed a pass to run under his foot, scrambling back desperately to avoid further embarrassment, while loose balls were hoofed clear in panic. Al-Shehri crouched on the sideline, as motionless as his midfield.
North Korea, well-beaten by the Iranians three days earlier, looked more dynamic and determined, pressing intensely and holding back nothing in their tackles. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, were meek. In the 25th minute, they fell further behind. Woeful defending allowed Korea a free shot at goal from close range and Al-Bukhari’s parried save was turned into the net by striker Yu-song Kim.
Al-Shehri refrained from making changes at half-time, yet his side did not improve. Just six minutes after the restart, and again from a corner, Korea notched their third. At 1.94m, Ittihad’s Awn Al-Saluli was the tallest outfield player by some distance, yet he was slow to react when Yu-song Kim squeezed in front of him to header home his second goal of the afternoon.
The rushed introduction of Nawaf Al-Habasi and Haroune Camara gave the Young Falcons more of a physical presence and Abdulrahman Ghareeb saw his shot tipped around the post, but it was Korea who came closest to the game’s fourth. Al-Zubaidi was dispossessed while playing out from the back and raced back to make a last-ditch tackle, winning the ball cleanly. Tajikstani referee Nasrullo Kabirov, however, deemed it a foul and produced a red card only to change his mind after speaking with his fourth official.
With news filtering through that Myanmar were beating Iran 2-0 and chasing a third, Saudi pushed forward seeking a lifeline. It was not to arrive, but neither was Myanmar’s, allowing the Young Falcons, wings clipped, to stumble through to the knock-out stages.