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The troubled tour that ended Edgardo Bauza’s reign as Saudi Arabia's head coach

LONDON: As the only English-language journalist at this month’s ill-fated World Cup preparation camp in Portugal, I was able to witness firsthand Edgardo Bauza’s dying days as coach of Saudi Arabia. It is difficult to say the signs were there given the camp was supposed to essentially be a first chance to implement some of his ideas and philosophies. There were clues, however, that the two parties were not a perfect match.
In an industry where patience is as rare, the Argentine paid the price for lackluster results in matches where results were meant to be irrelevant. Defeats to Portugal and Bulgaria were not ideal, but he was unruffled. These were friendlies and the 59-year-old had decided to experiment with formations and personnel. He told me repeatedly he had “eight months to prepare,” adding “we are calm; we have time.”
He was wrong. The Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) were unconvinced. There are bottles of laban that have lasted longer than Bauza’s 69-day reign and he will surely feel hard done by, yet like a man who has smoked all his life being told he has cancer, while Bauza may have been surprised, he cannot have been shocked.
Since the Green Falcons finished bottom of their group at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the national team has gone through 12 coaches in 11 years. In September, Bert van Marwijk led the Gulf side to a first World Cup in more than a decade, yet celebrated not by signing a new contract, but rather by seeing his deal expire without extension.
Bauza, once named the third-best coach in the world but more recently labelled a failure with Argentina, was not the first choice and when he was offered the job, he had little say given his employer, the UAE FA, had already struck a deal with SAFF. In hindsight, it appeared a marriage of convenience rather than suitability.
The 59-year-old told me in Portugal his switch to Riyadh eight weeks earlier was practically taken out of his hands. In what proved to be his final interview with an English-language publication, he explained: “It was not a difficult decision. The president of SAFF called the president of the UAE FA because they no longer had a coach.They made an agreement in which I could work and then they called me on the phone and I was asked if I agreed to work in Saudi Arabia.”
Bauza did not seem to be particularly well informed of goings-on behind closed doors. He was unaware that Oliver Kahn had been tasked to train the national team’s shot-stoppers and appeared oblivious to a SAFF proposal to send the country’s best players to Europe this winter on loan. He appeared content, but struggled with an apparent lack of professionalism, grimacing at the mention of his players visiting McDonalds and getting angry when our interview was interrupted by a SAFF delegate asking if he wanted his laundry washed.
He highlighted the shallow depth of the pool of players he had to select from, the questionable quality of the Saudi Pro League and his lack of a game-changer, such as Lionel Messi or Omar Abdulrahman. He also confirmed his family remained in Dubai, where he continued to visit most weeks. Crucially, despite a spell with Al-Nassr in 2009, he also relied entirely on a translator to communicate with his players.
The language problem was laid bare on the sidelines of his team’s 1-0 defeat to a poor Bulgaria side as he repeatedly struggled to convey his tactical ideas. He urged his wingers to attack the opposition full-backs only to see them turn and pass backwards. He spun on his size 13s and stared — furious and frustrated — at his bench for assistance and was met only with silence and blank stares.
Eight days later, the silence was broken: Bauza was gone. The news made me think of his final words as he passed me on the way out of the Estádio do Fontelo when I asked him about future friendlies. “There is a long way to go, but we have plenty time,” he said. “Ask me again in Moscow.”
His flight to Russia for next week’s World Cup draw has since been canceled.