Saudi Arabia coach Pizzi believes Green Falcons are ‘improving day by day’ ahead of World Cup

Updated 10 May 2018

Saudi Arabia coach Pizzi believes Green Falcons are ‘improving day by day’ ahead of World Cup

  • Goals from Salman Al-Faraj and Yahya Al-Shehri hand Pizzi his second win as coach
  • Saudi enjoyed 63 percent possession, but only manage two shots on target

CADIZ: Saudi Arabia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi insists that while he has full respect for Algeria, he was not surprised by his side’s 2-0 win on Wednesday night, adding that further improvement is essential if his Green Falcons are to leave their mark at next month’s Fifa World Cup.
With the friendly not marked on the official international match calendar, the Green Falcons faced an Algeria side that consisted of only home-based players. Instead of the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Yacine Brahimi, and Islam Slimani, the African side’s coach Rabah Madjer selected a largely experimental team that had trained together for only three days.
Algeria, who reached the knock-out stages of the 2014 World Cup, were selected by Pizzi as preparation for his side’s Group A clash with Egypt on June 25. Yet while Egypt finished top of their 2018 qualifying group, Algeria slumped, failing to win a single match in six against Nigeria, Zambia and Cameroon. They were later handed three points when Nigeria were deemed to have fielded an ineligible player, but the Desert Foxes stayed rooted to the bottom of their group.
It is with this context that Pizzi, inside the Estadio Ramón de Carranza in southern Spain, conceded post-match that he had expected victory. And while goals from Salman Al-Faraj and Yahya Al-Shehri ensured the Argentine head coach left content, it could have — and should have — been more comfortable than it was.
“We are improving day after day,” Pizzi told reporters. “We have a lot of confidence in our squad, it’s a good group and each player has their own individual qualities.
“For me, whether the opposition players are first team or second choice, I don’t care. They are footballers representing their country, so it shouldn’t matter. We respect all our opponents and that, for sure, includes Algeria. Yet for me, both the level of the performance and the result is logical. Now we must continue to keep improving.”
Saudi enjoyed 63 percent possession, but they only managed two shots on target, floundering a host of chances, particularly in the second half. Salem Al-Dawsari, Mohamed Al-Sahlawi and Al-Faraj all missed decent chances, while Hattan Bahberi will be keen to forget how he failed to finish from close-range before the linesman raised his flag to call him offside.
“The first part of the game, Algeria were the better side. They had more control over the game, but when we scored the first goal, it gave us more confidence, and allowed us to play more calmly,” Pizzi added. “You saw that in the second half. We started better, played with more comfort, were able to control the game more, circulate the ball and create more chances. The domination of the game was ours, but of course we must be more clinical in front of goal.”
It could have been a different outcome had Algerian striker Abdennour Belkheir made more of an early chance gifted to him when Saeed Al-Mowallad was caught ball-watching in the penalty area. As a deep cross came in from the flank, the Al-Ahli right-back stood stationary preparing to clear, failing to notice Belkheir sneaking in to plant a firm header toward goal. Fortunately for Al-Mowallad it was off-target.
“It was a good game generally,” said Al-Mowallad, who was replaced by Mohammed Al-Burayk with five minutes remaining. “To feel what it is like to win again, for us players, is always important. It gives us more confidence and motivation to do better in the next game. Coach Pizzi has been with us for five games now and I think, while we still must improve, we are starting to see the benefits of working with him.”
Pizzi and his squad have returned to their training base in Marbella for the remainder of the week. On Sunday, they will relocate to Sevilla to prepare for another friendly match, against Greece Tuesday. By that time Pizzi will have named his provisional 35-man World Cup squad and it will be less than one month until his side’s curtain-raiser against Russia in Moscow.

Jaka Ihbeisheh’s heartwarming journey from Slovenia to Palestine — via football

Updated 18 November 2018

Jaka Ihbeisheh’s heartwarming journey from Slovenia to Palestine — via football

LONDON: Jaka Ihbeisheh’s eyes glisten as he recalls the moment his father first watched him play for Palestine. While the midfielder’s path to the national team may have been unconventional, those feelings of pride on his debut were wholly natural. From western Yugoslavia to the West Bank, Ihbeisheh’s journey was fueled by a desire to rediscover his roots.
Ihbeisheh was born in Ljubljana in 1986 to a Slovenian mother and a Palestinian father, who met while the latter was studying medicine in Croatia. His parents separated when he was seven years old, however, and his father moved back to Palestine.
It would be 18 years before he saw his father again.
An early love of football developed into a career for Ihbeisheh, who played for a number of Slovenian clubs. But while he lived out his childhood dream professionally, in his personal life there remained a nagging question about the whereabouts of his father.

In 2013, Ihbeisheh finally decided to try to reach out to the man from whom he had been estranged for three quarters of his life.
“After getting married, I started to question more where I was from and what my father had been doing,” Ihbeisheh explained. “We still had an envelope at home with an address on it so I decided to write a letter to him asking him if he wanted to meet me.
“I wrote three letters — in Slovenian, Croatian and English — and to be honest I had no idea if I would receive a reply.”
A month passed by with no response but then one day Ihbeisheh opened his Facebook account to see a friend request from someone whose name was written in Arabic.
“It was a strange moment after all those years but the date of birth matched my father’s so I knew it was him. We started to talk on Skype first, in Croatian. I was amazed he could remember but he said that because he studied medicine in the language he had never forgotten it. He still used Croatian medical textbooks.


Jaka Ihbeisheh in action for Slovenian side Rudar Velenje. (Photo / Twitter: @ihbeisheh)

“After a few calls, my wife and I decided the time was right to go and visit him in Palestine. A lot of people said things like, ‘Don’t go there you are crazy, you will get shot’ — but my father lived there and I wanted to go and visit him. I was not afraid.”
That first trip was fraught with nervous excitement as Ihbeisheh made his way to his father’s homeland via his aunt’s house in Jordan. The midfielder had read and heard about the potential difficulties of the crossing into Palestine and his own passage was not straightforward.
“The security at the border was very heavy and when they asked me where I was going, I said Palestine. He said, ‘No, to Israel’ and I said, ‘No, Palestine’. Then he separated me and my wife and a soldier came and took me into a room to ask a lot of questions.
“They asked about my life, my father, my work, my wife. They went on Wikipedia to check if I really was a Slovenian professional footballer. Then they called my wife inside — they were checking our stories matched. They asked my wife the name of my coach and fortunately she knew it. We were there for five hours in all.”
For Ihbeisheh it was glimpse into the border woes that are a regular part of life for Palestinians, though happier experiences were to come.

“When we got off the bus, my father and all his family were there waiting and it was very emotional. Of course, we had a big meal to celebrate.
“After that trip, I knew that if the opportunity came up I would want to play international football for Palestine. My father didn’t need to say anything for me to know how much it would mean to him.”
When Ihbeisheh returned to Slovenia, the thought of playing for Palestine was still on his mind but he had no idea how to put the wheels in motion. Then a fortuitous meeting with a Palestinian diplomat’s son opened the door. Six months later, Ihbeisheh received a text inviting him to be involved with the squad for the first time.
“My first game was a friendly in Dubai ahead of the 2015 Asian Cup and it was an amazing day. When the national anthem played, I was so proud. You meet the other players and hear their stories, then you understand why it means so much to represent Palestine.
“Since then I have come to play every time they call me. I love being part of this team.”


Jaka Ihbeisheh meeting hero Xavi, and on the sidelines of a Rudar Velenje game. (Photo / Twitter: @ihbeisheh)

Ihbeisheh went on to make a major impact at the Asian Cup in Australia, becoming the first Palestinian player to score at a major international tournament in a 5-1 defeat to Jordan.

But while that was a moment to savour, it paled in comparison to the first game he played in Palestine.
“It is a totally different occasion playing in Palestine. Everyone is supporting their country and they make incredible noise, they want to take pictures with us. We feel like heroes. It’s a shame that our home games are often moved away from our land and our people — I hope this stops.
“My first game there was a 0-0 draw with UAE in (the West Bank town) Al-Ram and of course it was the first time my father saw me play in Palestine. This was an emotional moment for him and for me. He said, ‘I was really proud to see you play but I am proud even when you are not playing. You are always representing your country.’
“The more I am called up to play for Palestine, the more I see him so, for us, football has an important meaning.”
That sentiment is true for many in Palestine, for whom football offers a temporary escape from difficult lives. Palestine may often appear to be a byword for conflict but Ihbeisheh has found the opposite to be true, the country uniting him with both his father and his heritage.
“I feel really sad about some of the things I hear, some of the experience my friends and family have. It is difficult to imagine for people like me who have always lived in Europe. You just hear the things on TV or radio but it is not the same as when my teammates tell me their stories.
“What each of them has gone through, and achieved, to play football for Palestine is inspirational. They know how football can help to give the supporters something, for a little bit of time they forget about all the worries. This is important to them, and me.
“I may not come from Palestine but when we are together as team-mates, there is no difference if you have lived your whole life in Palestine or outside of Palestine. We are all the same, we are family.”