Saudi Arabia slowly starting to reap benefits of partnership with La Liga

Salem Al-Dawsari (C) celebrates after scoring a goal during the friendly football match between Saudi Arabia and Greece at the Olympic stadium in Sevilla. (AFP)
Updated 16 May 2018
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Saudi Arabia slowly starting to reap benefits of partnership with La Liga

  • Three Saudi players on loan to Spanish clubs
  • 'All three actually return in better shape and in better condition than they were before'

The Saudi Arabia national team arrived back in Riyadh yesterday after 22 days in Spain, yet for three of Juan Antonio Pizzi’s squad, their sojourn in southern Europe has lasted much longer.
Since January, Fahad Al-Muwallad, Salem Al-Dawsari and Yahya Al-Shehri have been living in a different kingdom to that which they are accustomed. The high-profile trio are just three of nine players who moved from the Middle East to the Mediterranean on loan as part of a deal between the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, the country’s General Sports Authority and La Liga.
The deals proved a bone of contention both in Spain and Saudi Arabia. The Spanish footballers’ union claimed at the time that the agreement “prioritises the economic aspect over the sporting one,” while those in the Gulf questioned the timing, asserting that key players would struggle to break into their respective first teams and arrive back lacking match fitness.
In the end, only Al-Muwallad — a speedy winger whose goal in the 1-0 win over Japan last September secured his country’s World Cup qualification — has managed minutes with his first-team. He came off the bench for Levante with 10 minutes remaining of last week’s 3-0 win over Leganés. There is one round of the Spanish season left and Al-Dawsari and Al-Muwallad have returned to their clubs in a bid to be involved.
Question marks surrounding the trio’s fitness have followed them throughout the past five months. While Al-Muwallad’s involvement with Levante meant he missed much of this month’s camp in Marbella, Villarreal’s Al-Dawsari and Leganés’ Al-Shehri were given permission to leave their respective clubs early and join up with the national team. On Tuesday night against Greece, after discussions with the Saudi medical team, both completed 90 minutes for the first time this year.
“First of all, thanks to God that I have had this opportunity to train here in Spain with Leganés,” Al-Shehri told Arab News. “It has been a wonderful experience to have close contact with such a high level of professionalism and train with a top club with European players. Even without playing a game, I am sure it will reflect well on my game, my technical level and I will try to improve more and more this aspect — both physical and technical.”
Al-Dawsari headed the opening goal against Greece on Tuesday, while Al-Shehri — looking notably leaner than he did six months ago — scored in last week’s friendly win over Algeria. The 27-year-old said the crucial lesson he will take back to Saudi with him is the need for dedication.
“The biggest thing for me has probably actually been the routine — the daily routine, the food, the training sessions, it is very organized. I had extra training sessions in the gym to improve my strength, so thanks to God, I think I got the maximum benefit out of it. Now I hope to go on and reach a higher level again and continue this improvement,” he said.
Pizzi, meanwhile, said he could understand concerns regarding three of his key men not playing competitive matches in the run up to the World Cup, but dismissed any doubts that the experiment was badly timed. The Argentine, who played in La Liga for seven years with Tenerife, Valencia and Barcelona, said his players’ fitness has improved since last year.
“I am very glad they have had this experience. It is unfortunate they weren’t able to play with their teams, but we cannot expect a revolution — it was a deal with La Liga. And all three actually return in better shape and in better condition than they were before,” Pizzi said, before adding with a smile, “Plus now they understand a few words of Spanish, too.”


Jose Mourinho’s sacking leaves the ‘Special One’ at a career crossroads

Updated 18 December 2018
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Jose Mourinho’s sacking leaves the ‘Special One’ at a career crossroads

  • Since the middle of last season, Mourinho had been involved in a power struggle with senior members of the playing squad
  • A string of uninspiring performances since the season started saw Mourinho come in for criticism from all sides

LONDON: Five years after being snubbed for the Manchester United job immediately after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho has once again been unceremoniously rejected by the club after two-and-a-half fractious and tumultuous years at the helm.
And the truth is, it was an inevitable divorce.
Since the middle of last season, Mourinho had been involved in a power struggle with senior members of the playing squad, openly criticized board members for a lack of backing in the transfer window and the majority of fans had started to turn on the so-called “Special One” and his tactics.
And while they would never do so publicly, no doubt several of the players who had fallen foul of Mourinho’s wrath were privately breathing a sigh of relief when the club announced that Mourinho had left the club with “immediate effect” on Tuesday.
Indeed, the player Mourinho clashed with the most — £89 million ($112 million) midfielder Paul Pogba — deleted a controversial social media post of himself smiling after the news broke.
That controversy was a microcosm of the French World Cup winner’s stormy relationship with Mourinho.
But the former Juventus player, who retuned to Manchester United having already been with the club during the Ferguson era, was repeatedly criticized by Mourinho during his reign and Pogba was stripped of the United vice-captaincy earlier this season.
The pair were captured having a frosty exchange on the training ground as Mourinho grew angry with his key midfielder’s lethargic performances, dropping him on several occasions to spark talk he would be sold by the end of the season.
And even on the pitch, the writing has been on the wall for a while.
A string of uninspiring performances since the season started saw Mourinho come in for criticism from all sides, as the Portuguese became more and more embittered and paranoid in his dealings with the media.
The final straw for the club was Sunday’s 3-1 defeat to Liverpool, who United usurped as the biggest club in England under Ferguson’s 27-year reign. And the Scot was seen shaking his head as he watched his dynasty unravel in front of his eyes at the hands of United’s bitterest of rivals.
While the Merseyside club battle it out for the Premier League title with Manchester City and Tottenham — all playing a refreshing, exciting brand of football — United find themselves 19 points adrift of the summit and struggling to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
Mourinho’s stagnant, defensive approach jarred with supporters, some of whom have only known the rampant attack-minded approach the club used to such devastating efficacy under Ferguson.
Mourinho was brought in to bring back those glory days after David Moyes and then Dutchman Louis van Gaal struggled to step out of Ferguson’s shadow.
And despite first-season League Cup and Europa League titles, he has failed miserably since. And he has bought himself little good grace with fans and officials, finding new excuses and ways to blame each latest defeat on his players, while ungraciously reminding critics of previous successes at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid.
But this ignominious end for Mourinho in what he called his “dream job” leaves him at a crossroads in his career. Few clubs will have been inspired by his playing style with a highly-talented team, even fewer will want to deal with the off-field tantrums and constant bickering.
Having arrived in English football as a breath of fresh air, he leaves it (for now) like a foul odor. With the prospect of no club to manage, no trophies to win and no teams to build, Mourinho is now much less the “Special One,” and more and more likely to be the “Tainted One.”