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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)
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.