MARBELLA: With a call of “hasta luego,” the Saudi Arabia national team were waved off by staff at Marbella Football Center on Sunday having spent the majority of their World Cup preparations here among the pristine fields, the famous shirts and the replica Jules Rimet trophy. It was one more chapter concluded in the Green Falcons’ rigorous journey to Russia this summer.
Over the course of five weeks — two in March and a further three now — Juan Antonio Pizzi’s squad has called the MFC home, arriving each morning at 10.30am and staying until the midday sun suggests it is wiser to make the 1.1km journey back to The Westin La Quinta for lunch, rest and recuperation. On double-session days, they have returned in the evening from 5.30pm until 7pm; other times the players amused themselves in their rooms or, like last Friday, visit the King Abdulaziz Mosque.
Pizzi was provided four options for his preparation camps, choosing Marbella because of the region’s favorable climate (between 14C and 24C over the past few days), the close proximity to quality football stadiums for friendly matches (Algeria in Cádiz last week; Greece in Seville on Tuesday), and the high-quality nearby accommodation (there are more than 17 hotels in a 7-kilometer radius). For the Argentine coach, no doubt sharing a common language with the residents was a factor too.
“He chose here because of the weather mainly,” said Omar Bakhashwain, the team manager who is charged with overseeing the organization of everything from food and flight reservations to visas and coach timetables. “At this time of year, in spring, this place is ideal for two sessions a day, unlike in more northern Europe where it can be cold or even rain. The good weather is important to make the most of our time here and the hotels are close, which just makes everything so much easier.”
The MFC, with a ceramic statue of Pelé and logos for each of the six confederations mounted at its entrance, sits on a 56,000-square-meter site with every minute detail taken into consideration, right down to the length of the grass — between 18 and 22mm. It has four full-size pitches, four seven-a-side fields and seats for 1,200 spectators. When Saudi Arabia train, such is the privacy Pizzi demands, the seats always remain empty.
There is a museum under the clubhouse that carries framed replica shirts of Sweden from 1958, England 1966, Argentina 1986. Inside glass cabinets sit balls from each of the past 16 tournaments dating back to 1954, including an Adidas Questra like the one Saeed Al-Owairan took from inside his own half to score against Belgium in 1994 and a Fevernova similar to that which Mohamed Al-Deayea had to pick out of his net eight times against Germany in 2002.
In the corner, squeezed between plaques detailing tsu-chu — the ancient Chinese football game dating back to 3rd Century BC — and the original laws of association football, is a glass case in which reside replicas of the Jules Rimet, its replacement World Cup, and the Ballon d’Or.
Upstairs, next to the changing rooms, black and white photos of the game’s greats, including George Best and Lev Yashin, grace the walls, lead to a fascinating trail of more than 100 signed shirts, which loop up the stairs and culminate in a vast meeting room. From Bayern Munich and Dubai’s Al-Ahli to Heracles Almelo and the Argentina national team, each shirt represents a team that has trained here. Leicester City and Liverpool have both visited during the past three months.
“It’s difficult not to be impressed here,” said Bakhashwain.
“You just need to look around. It’s obvious why so many teams choose to come here. It has everything you could want.”
The Green Falcons travel with a staff of around 25, ranging from a Syrian man-mountain who carries an Argentine passport and works as Pizzi’s personal translator, to a short and stocky Brazilian physician who distributes water and goodwill. Each training session starts the same, with fitness coach Alejandro Richino, an effervescent Spaniard who formerly worked with Valencia and the Chile national team, taking the squad through a brisk warm-up that includes shuttle runs and light ball work.
Richino delivers orders in loud Spanish that, when necessary, is translated by Ayman Ebeid, an Egyptian interpreter who speaks four languages fluently. On the request of goalkeeper coach Frans Hoek, the shotstoppers tend to work closely with the rest of the team throughout.
All the time Pizzi stands, arms folded, observing training and chatting quietly in Spanish with his closest confidants. Yellow slalom poles and red mannequins are set up for drills and the media is quickly expelled. Seventy-five minutes later, with the players looking a little less lively, they troop back on to the bus to calls of “vamos” and “yallah.”
“It’s been a very good camp, a mixture of physical and technical,” said goalkeeper Yasser Al-Mosailem, “It has been very important also because now the Saudi season is over we have to maintain our fitness. Thanks to God we beat Algeria 2-0 and now we can look forward to the match with Greece. We are feeling ready and hope to play better.”