Saudi Arabian loan players need to be given chance to make mark in Spain’s La Liga

Salem Al-Dawsari has been named in the Villarreal squad for the Europa League game in Lyon. (@Arab_Villarreal)
Updated 15 February 2018
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Saudi Arabian loan players need to be given chance to make mark in Spain’s La Liga

LONDON: The news that Villarreal have named Salem Al-Dawsari in their Europa League squad to face Lyon on Thursday is interesting.
If the Saudi Arabia international gets some serious minutes on the pitch then a few opinions in the two countries over their new collaboration may change. If not, questions will persist.
The talented winger was one of nine Saudi Arabian players to join Spanish clubs last month. Included in the nonet were some of the top talents in the Middle East, such as Fahad Al-Muwallad, now with Levante, and new Leganes player Yahia Al-Shehri. The rest of the arrivals have gone to other teams in the first and second tiers.
It is the brainchild of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation and La Liga. The benefits for both parties seemed clear: Some of the top players in the Middle East get some much-needed international experience with the World Cup just four months away, while La Liga got more fans in Saudi Arabia and, perhaps, a sponsorship deal or two. The size of the market is clear. Villarreal set up an Arabic Twitter account after Al-Dawsari signed and it already boasts nearly 43,000 followers. A video of him juggling a ball attracted 420,000 views.
Yet when Leganes announced the signing of Saudi Arabia international Al-Shehri, it was not only coach Asier Garitano who admitted to know nothing of the players, fans were in the same position. They took to Google.
“Soon we knew that he was one of the best players in Saudi Arabia and that he has even been on the cover of the FIFA video game,” Daniel Gonzalez told Arab News. “We fully respect any player who signs the club and if Yahia works as hard as he can and gives everything for the shirt, then he will be respected and loved by all.”
Spanish eyebrows are still raised high while expectations that there will be any on-pitch action are low. Al-Muwallad and Al-Dawsari are yet to even make Levante’s and Villarreal’s matchday squad, leading to many Saudi Arabia football fans bombarding the clubs’ Twitter accounts with messages of complaint every time their squads are announced.
Fawad Al-Muwallad has joined Levante. (AFP)

“The general reaction has been eyes rolling and cynicism, if I’m being honest,” Joseph Sexton, a Spanish football writer with Marca, told Arab News. “I doubt those headed to top flight sides will see much, if any action. However, we are talking about international players bound for the World Cup, so it’s possible at struggling Levante they may call on theirs … but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
Levante fans are particularly disappointed not to have seen the silky skills of Al-Muwallad, the talented Al Ittihad winger, after Fernando Sanz, the director of La Liga in the Middle East and North Africa, labeled him “the Cristiano or Messi of Saudi Arabia.”
“It is OK for players to come and not to play if they are young and we can develop them into better players for the future,” Sergio Lopez, a Levante fan, said. “The problem here is that they are here just for a few months. It is not a signing for the future, it is not a signing for now, so what is the signing for? The only realistic answer then it is that it is a signing that is made for non-football reasons.”
Likewise Gonzalez and the Leganes fans are ready to welcome their new Saudi star, Al-Shehri, but wonder if they will have a chance to do so.
“Our doubts are focused on the quality differences that may exist between the Saudi league and the Spanish league,” Gonzalez said. “We also believe that the economic aspect has weighed a lot in the decision to sign Yahia. It seems only a good deal for the compensation that we will receive in terms of sponsorship.”
The Spanish Players’ Union agrees. “This new business model prioritizes the economic aspect over the sporting one, sacrificing the essence of this sport and favoring business over the promotion and development of our footballers,” it said in a statement.
La Liga may be looking to boost its presence and popularity in the Middle East but even if it cannot offer playing time in return, there are other benefits to be had for the Saudi pioneers, according to Sexton.
“The great success of Spanish sides — well beyond the big three — has been built on developing talent, working within your constraints, and the massive reservoir of coaching talent at every level. If the players can overcome the linguistic and cultural aspects, they could really learn a thing or two.”
Lee Chun-soo is a former South Korea international who spent time in the previous decade with Real Sociedad and Numancia. He agrees that there is much to absorb.
“Even when you do not play, you can learn so much in Spain,” said Lee. “There is a different way of playing and the standards are very high. If you make the effort then you will get much out of it but you have to work hard even if you are not playing.”


UAE boss Alberto Zaccheroni admits performances have been poor ahead of Socceroos clash

Updated 22 January 2019
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UAE boss Alberto Zaccheroni admits performances have been poor ahead of Socceroos clash

  • UAE boss still under spotlight despite side reaching lasts-eight, where they will face Australia.
  • Hosts struggled to beat Kyrgyzstan in second-round after underwhelming group stage.

LONDON: Having guided your team to the last eight of the Asian Cup, it must seem strange to find yourself on the defensive. But that is the situation Alberto Zaccheroni, right, faced after leading the UAE to a second-round win over Kyrgyzstan.
The hosts were strongly fancied to see off the Central Asians in their knockout clash in Abu Dhabi, but were taken to extra time and the likely drama of penalties when Ahmed Khalil grabbed the winner in the 103rd minute.
The performance added to the impression that the Whites have made the quarterfinals through luck rather than ability. The team has looked far from impressive during the group stage and anything but possible winners overall.
They now face reigning champions Australia — and even the UAE boss admitted they will have their work cut out unless they improve. “I admit that against (Kyrgyzstan) we seemed to struggle with long ball and crosses, and we also had one or two chances to score and secure the game, but we didn’t convert those opportunities,” the Italian former coach of AC Milan and Juventus said.
“We will try to correct all the things that we believe were less positive between now and the quarterfinals. We now have three days to assess our squad and their injuries before we face a strong Australia team.”
Usually when a team reaches the later stages of a big tournament, players and coaches ignore the performance and pretend all is grand — generally with an emphatic declaration that they will win the title.
Zaccheroni’s post-match reaction was anything but bombastic, however. That is not only a pleasant change but also an appreciation that the UAE have been anything but impressive in their march — in fact, more a slow plod — to the last eight.
This is Kyrgyzstan’s first Asian Cup, and they are far from world-beaters. Playing at home with hopes of lighting the trophy on Feb. 1, the UAE should have easily beaten the Central Asian outfit.
Goals from Mirlan Murzaev and a dramatic late equalizer from substitute Tursunali Rustamov canceled out strikes by Khamis Esmaeel and Ali Mabkhouts. On top of that they hit the bar and the post. It took a controversial Khalil spot-kick to win the match, one that left the Central Asians with a bitter taste in the mouth.
“I don’t want to talk about the referee,” Kyrgyzstan coach Aleksandr Krestinin said.
“We leave the tournament with a lot of regrets — we deserved more. It’s our first Asian Cup, but I’m sure it won’t be our last and we will come back stronger.”
There is a sense the UAE cannot play much worse than they have so far, and the hope will be that they can find a good performance in the quarterfinal against the Socceroos. If they are to shock the reigning champions, they will need Khalil to find his scoring boots again.
“Ahmed Khalil is a very good striker, he is one of the best in Asia,” Zaccheroni said of the 2015 AFC Player of the Year.
“When I took over the UAE team (at the end of 2017), he was injured and had not trained for a long time. He has also been injured many times recently and did not play often for his club.
“Nevertheless, he is a very good player, and I have to say that I rely on him a lot. He does so much for the team.”