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.


Esperance Sportive de Tunis told to forget Real Madrid and focus on Al-Ain in FIFA Club World Cup

Updated 12 December 2018
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Esperance Sportive de Tunis told to forget Real Madrid and focus on Al-Ain in FIFA Club World Cup

  • Tunisian giants face Al-Ain in their quarterfinal
  • In Japan, Esperance were beaten by Asian champions Al-Sadd, a defeat that saw them miss out on the chance of playing Barcelona

ABU DHABI: Esperance Sportive de Tunis have been told they have to learn from their mistakes of 2011 or forget about a dream date with Real Madrid. 

The Tunisian giants face Al-Ain in their quarterfinal with their skipper Khalil Chemmam reminding them not to fall foul of overconfidence as they did when they last played in the FIFA Club World Cup seven years ago. In Japan, Esperance were beaten by Asian champions Al-Sadd, a defeat that saw them miss out on the chance of playing Barcelona in the semifinals.

With a last-four clash against Real Madrid on offer to the winners of Saturday’s match, Chemmam is only too aware of the possibility of history repeating itself. 

“We should concentrate on our quarterfinal first, take each game as it comes, and try not to make the same mistakes we made in 2011,” the Tunisia international said. 

“We have to focus on our initial opponents and do our research beforehand. We must give our all out on the pitch so that we don’t have any regrets this time.”

He added: “Appearing at the Club World Cup might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some players, so we should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past, when we played well but lost. That’s why we have to stay focused and do our best to advance as far as we can in the competition.”

That Esperance are even in the position to take on the most successful club sides in the world has come as a bit of a shock to the defender. Egyptian aces Al-Ahly were strongly fancied to beat them over the two legs of the CAF Champions League final. They lost 3-1 in Alexandria but fashioned a brilliant comeback in the second leg, winning 3-0 to claim the title 4-3 on aggregate. 

But now that they have made it to the UAE they do, Chemmam admitted, have one eye on a clash with Real Madrid. 

“We didn’t really envisage winning the Champions League this season, but we wanted to go as far as possible,” Chemmam said. 

“There wasn’t much pressure on us, and we managed to go on a run and claim the title. And so we’ll try to do the same in the Club World Cup. 

“We won’t set an objective, but everyone’s been dreaming of making it to the final and playing Real Madrid, the European champions.

“I’m so fortunate to be an Esperance player. They’re a big name, not just in Tunisia, but throughout Africa. If I didn’t play here, I might not have had the chance to participate in the Club World Cup in 2011, and now again in 2018. That said, I’ll need to handle the large amount of responsibility placed on my shoulders, and hopefully we’ll record better results at this tournament compared to last time around in Japan.”

If Chemmam and his Esperance side can cause a shock or two over the coming few days, it perhaps would not be too much of a surprise. It is the team’s centenary year and as seen with the CAF Champions League win, luck does seem to be on their side. 

“Winning the Champions League this year was special because it came in the club’s centenary year and against a big team, Al Ahly,” Chemmam said. “Out of all the trophies we’ve won, this one is unique because we not only beat them, but we also played better than them. It was a happy day for Tunisia and for Esperance’s supporters, of course. It was an exceptional tournament for us.”

Of their last-four opponents he added: “It’ll be a tough match.

“Without a doubt … Al-Ain will have a lot of supporters in the stands, and that will give them a boost. However, our fans will be there for us too. They follow us wherever we go, and we expect that to continue at the Club World Cup.”