INTERVIEW: Juan Antonio Pizzi says Saudi Arabia have nothing to fear at World Cup

Having taken over Edgardo Bauza Pizzi has stamped his authority and style of play on the Green Falcons.
Updated 16 June 2018
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INTERVIEW: Juan Antonio Pizzi says Saudi Arabia have nothing to fear at World Cup

  • Argentine boss of Green Falcons certain the players are now used to his style of play after seven months in the hotseat.
  • Pizzi and players head to Russia where they will play the hosts in the opening match on Thursday.

MOSCOW: From Diego Simeone to Pep Guardiola via Mauricio Pochettino and Jorge Sampaoli, the footballing influence of Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa is far-reaching. Last November, when Juan Antonio Pizzi was appointed head coach of the Saudi Arabia national team, those famous tactical tentacles reached Riyadh.
Both Bielsa and Pizzi have coached the Chilean national team in recent years and the latter has spoken of his admiration he holds for the former. Bielsa’s teams are known for their stamina, willingness to press the opposition high up the pitch, and tendency to rush forward in numbers. For Pizzi, this strategy worked perfectly when he led Chile to victory at the 2016 Copa America, with the highlight a 7-0 annihilation of Mexico in the quarterfinals.
However, when Pizzi was appointed by the Saudi Arabia Football Federation to replace Edgardo Bauza, it was said the Gulf side lacked the players to implement the same high-intensity style. Instead of internationally trained global stars such as Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, the 50-year-old was inheriting a squad of players competing exclusively in their local league.
It was not a straightforward handover, either. The Green Falcons had qualified for the World Cup under the guidance of Bert van Marwijk, who had a winning 4-3-3 formation and a well-disciplined team. When the Dutchman refused to relocate to the Kingdom, however, his contract was not renewed. That opened the door for Bauza, but the former Argentina national team coach was dismissed after just three official games having lost twice and netted just two goals. 
Now, seven months on, performances are much improved; the Green Falcons are showing signs of a return to form, only this time with a Bielsian flavour. With Pizzi opting more often for a 4-2-3-1 formation, recent preparatory games against Algeria and Greece included rapid attacks featuring four or five players, while the energetic press in the second half against Italy that led to Yahya Al-Shehri scoring stemmed from the side winning possession in the opposition half. The 3-0 defeat to Peru was, Pizzi believes, a mere hiccup given he had selected an experimental 11.
“I can identify with Bielsa, but we coaches need to be open and adaptable, never dismissive of a tactical scheme or a future possibility, even if we like some strategies more than others. That is why, as a head coach, I do not like to be confined to one set of tactics,” Pizzi told Arab News in his first sit-down interview with an English-language outlet since taking the reins of the team. 
“My overwhelming belief is that any footballer in the world can be adapted to any position, but only on the condition that the player is willing to take on board the head coach’s instructions. I mean, that’s essentially the main responsibility of a head coach — to identify the strengths of each player, how each player can be improved, and then to create a playing style that will bring all the players together and produce success on the pitch.”
Pizzi trained under Bauza at Rosario Central in 1999-2000 and is understandably respectful of his compatriot. He insists he did not seek out his former coach before accepting the opportunity to replace him and was not concerned by the amount of time Bauza had been given by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation. Instead, Pizzi said, he is his own confident man with his own unique tactical ideas. 
“Bauza was my coach while in Argentina and I don’t like to speak too much about other coaches,” he said. “I am just trying always to impose my own playing style on my teams; the style that I want. I respect all the playing styles over the world; they are all different and have their own values, but this is my way. 
“I like to press high up the park and put the opponents under pressure. Take the ball to the offensive line and get into a situation where we can score. Sometimes that happens and other times it is not very effective, but that’s the general objective. For me, it is not always to put more players into the attack, but this is one idea.”
One of Pizzi’s biggest challenges is turning around his team’s fortunes in front of goal. Although the Green Falcons are creating chances, profligacy is hurting them. They have managed just eight goals in their past seven matches and Mohamed Al-Sahlawi, the team’s lone striker, is suffering an international goal drought that dates back more than a year. 
The Al-Nassr forward scored 16 times in 14 games during qualifying, but these statistics appear less impressive considering eight were against East Timor and only two arrived in the final qualifying phase when the opposition was more robust. Al-Sahlawi has failed to score for his country since a 3-2 defeat to Australia last June.
Pizzi, a former striker who racked up 160 goals in 364 games during a 15-year career with clubs including Barcelona, Tenerife and Valencia, knows only too well the importance of scoring for an attacking player’s confidence. And he is keen to ease the pressure on his only viable No. 10.
“I think that when it comes to strikers, their performances are related directly to self-belief and trust, and that can only grow when they do what they are chosen to do — score goals,” said the Argentine, who chose to represent Spain at international level and went on to net eight times in 22 appearances.
“But scoring is not the only reason strikers are in the team and it’s not their only task. That’s why it’s important for us to get the message across to all the players that it’s a team game and everyone must work together to score. Although it’s logical that the striker will make the goals because of his position on the pitch, without his teammates it is almost impossible for him to score.”
The focus now is working on composure in front of goal, but when Pizzi first took charge he had to increase not only his players’ fitness levels, but also their professionalism. Too many took their positions for granted while, under Bauza, many players had marked a 3-0 friendly defeat to Portugal by gorging on fast food. Such ingrained culture is difficult to erase, but having worked daily with his players for close to two months ahead of Thursday’s opening match, Pizzi is confident that they now understand what is required of them, and why.
“I’ve trained teams in Argentina, Spain and Mexico and also the national team in Chile,” he said.
“The most important thing is finding that professional, competitive level. We have had to reinforce personal levels of competitiveness in order to get players to compete again throughout the whole team. And that not only involves physical ability, but also fitness, diet and nutrition, and general professionalism.
“Fortunately, the players here are very malleable and have adapted to what we want from them. They know what to expect in Russia and know what we expect of them, so we are ready to perform to our best abilities. We are looking forward to the World Cup without fear.”


The Egyptian football players who paved the way for Mo Salah

Updated 18 June 2018
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The Egyptian football players who paved the way for Mo Salah

  • Long before the Liverpool star arrived in the UK, a handful of Egyptian players made the same journey
  • Mohammed Salah has the fame and, with a reported salary of £200,000 (SR1 million) per week, he certainly has the fortune.

LONDON: The World Cup is underway, and the hopes of football-mad Arab nations are rising. Many eyes are on Mohamed Salah, star of the Egyptian team and of the English Premier League, to elevate the reputation of Arab footballers.

At Liverpool, the 25-year-old is adored. But he is not the first Egyptian that British football fans have taken to their hearts.

Long, long before Mo, there was Mustafa Mansour and Mohamed Latif in the 1930s and before them, there was Hussein Hegazi and Tewfik Abdullah. All were Egyptians foot- ballers who brought their dazzling skills to British clubs.

One was a striker who had poems written about him; one graced the cover of the top football magazine of the time; one was a goalkeeper regarded as a trailblazer for African football who later served as a government minister, and one played for Glasgow Rangers and went on to become his country’s top football commentator.

 

Hussein Hegazi

Hegazi was the first. Born into a wealthy aristocratic Cairo family in 1891, he honed his footballing skills by playing against British soldiers and by the time he arrived in England in 1911 to study engineering at University College, London, he was already known in Egypt as a prolific goal scorer, notching up 57 in one season. He was also a top-class runner, winning the national championships in the quarter mile and half-mile (equivalent to today’s 400 meters and 800 meters) four years in a row.

How he came to the attention of Dulwich Hamlet FC, a well-established non-league club in South London is unclear but he made his debut with them on Sept. 23, 1911, to great acclaim. With his wiry build (he weighed only 60 kg), he was de- scribed as having “a lightning drive.”

A match report in the local newspa- per, the “South London Press,” said: “The Egyptian gave a splendid exhibition... simply conjured with the ball.” Another report from Oct. 13 called him “the thinking man’s footballer.”

The fans loved him as much as the pundits and promptly nicknamed him Nebuchadnezzar.

It was not long before a much bigger club noticed him. Fulham, then in the Second Division (today’s Championship), were eager to sign him up, especially after Hegazi scored in his try-out for them against Stockport County on Nov. 11.

Alarmed at the prospect of losing him, Dulwich Hamlet manager Pa Wilson turned up at Hegazi’s lodgings. After listening to Wil- son’s pleadings, Hegazi felt honor- bound to stay at Dulwich.

“I was in a difficulty for I wanted to play very much in league football and at the same time I did not want to leave Dulwich Hamlet, who have been very good to me,” he said. Wilson called Hegazi “as honorable a man as ever stepped on to a football field” and a writ- er for the “Athletic News” was moved to write a five-verse poem in tribute.

Hegazi did two European tours with Dulwich Hamlet and also played for the London county team. In 1913, he embarked on studies at Cambridge University but left before the end of his first year, though not before winning a Blue with the university football team. He played for the national Egyptian team in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics and finally hung up his boots in 1932, aged 40. He died in 1958. A street in the Garden City area of Cairo is named after him.

 

Tewfik Abdullah

Tewfik Abdullah (sometimes spelled Tawfik Abdallah), the second Egyp- tian to play in Britain, was encour- aged by his friendship with Tommy Barbour, a Scottish soldier in the Brit- ish army serving in Egypt who also played fullback for Derby County.

Born in Cairo in June 1896, Abdul- lah, a midfielder, began his career with Cairo club. Mokhtalat, and played for the national team at the 1920 Olympics. He also played against the British army, where he met Barbour.

Abdullah made his English league debut in October 1920 against Manchester City and was instantly nicknamed “Toothpick.”

One possibly apocryphal tale about his first game relates that he came out on to the pitch asking, “Where’s me camel?” It transpired he was, in fact, asking, “Where’s Mick Hamill?” the City player he had been assigned to mark.

Abdullah scored in the match, which Derby won 3-0. The following month, he was on the cover of the magazine “Topical Times,” with the pyramids and the Sphinx in the background, as part of a feature on the fashion for recruiting players “from far afield.”

In 15 appearances for Derby County, Abdullah never scored again and in 1922 he joined Scottish Second Division side, Cowdenbeath, where he was nick- named “Abe” and was awarded the ultimate acco- lade when a local leading miner named one of his racing greyhounds Abe in his honor. Beset by injury, Abdullah only

stayed one season in Scotland. In 1923, he joined Welsh non-league Bridgend Town and a year later he was back in the league with Hartlepool, in the northeast of England. He made 11 ap- pearances, scored once and at the end of the 1924 season crossed the Atlan- tic to join the exotically named Provi- dence Clamdiggers.

He played for four more teams in the US and went on to coach, but America’s racial segregation laws — which meant he was often not allowed to stay in the same hotels as his white colleagues — dismayed him. He returned to Egypt in the late 1920s for a year but crossed the Atlantic again to join Canadian side Montreal Carsteel, spending the rest of his playing career there.

After retiring he managed Farouk Club (an old name for Zamalek) and in 1940 became manager of the Egyp- tian national team, taking them to the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

More than a decade passed before an Egyptian again donned football boots for a British side — and then came a pair of them.

Goalkeeper Mustafa Kamel Man- sour and winger Mohammad La- tif were in Egypt’s 1934 World Cup squad, which was coached by Scots- man James McCrea.

 

Mustafa Kamel Mansour

Mansour, born in Alexandria in Au- gust 1914, began his club career with Al-Ahly. Latif, five years older, played for El-Mokhtalat, (another of Zama- lek’s past names). Encouraged by their mentor, McCrae, they arrived in Scotland in 1935 and enrolled at Jordanhill College to train as physi- cal education teachers.

The Glasgow Rangers wanted them both but Mansour instead chose to join Queen’s Park, Scotland’s oldest club and also the only amateur team in the Scottish professional league. He even turned down the huge sum of £5,000 — equivalent to around £340,000 ($455,000 or SR1.7million) today — to turn professional.

“It was a record at the time but I did not want to play for money,” said Mansour in a BBC interview in 2002. How times have changed.

He spent two seasons at Queen’s Park, where he was affectionately known as Tuffy, and played in al- most 50 league matches and eight Cup ties. He was also a popular adult member of the 72nd Glasgow Scout Troop.

Mansour returned to Egypt when war broke out in 1939, but his foot- balling career was far from over. Af- ter his playing days ended, he quali- fied as an international referee and then managed his old club, Al-Ahly. He was a top-ranking figure in Egyp- tian football and from 1958-61 he was secretary-general of the Confed- eration of African Football. He also served as a minister in the Egyptian government.

He died in 2002, a few weeks af- ter the interview with the BBC and a month before his 88th birthday.

 

Mohammad Latif

Five years older than his compa- triot, Mohammad Latif was from Beni Suef, south of Cairo, and by his early 20s, he was one of the best footballers in the country. His three goals against a British mandate football team during qualification rounds secured both Egypt’s place in the 1934 World Cup and Latif’s place in the squad.

The first non-white to play for Glasgow Rangers made his first team debut on Sept. 14, 1935, the same day that Hitler addressed 54,000 people at a mass rally in Nuremberg, an- nouncing laws against non-whites.

Unfortunately, Latif’s Rangers ca- reer did not progress well. His play- ing was described as “impetuous” and after that first outing, he was left out of the first team for seven months. His next game was also his last and he returned to Egypt to pre- pare for the 1936 Olympics in Ber- lin. He and Mansour both made the squad.

Latif rejoined El-Mokhtalat and continued playing for them until 1945. He moved into coaching and also attained international standard as a referee, before embarking on yet another successful career as a football commentator, achieving fame not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world as “the sheikh of commentators.”

Mohammed Salah may have the fame and, with a reported salary of £200,000 (SR1 million) per week, he certainly has the fortune.

The names of Hegazi, Abdullah, Mansour and Latif may not echo so resoundingly through the annals of footballing history. But they were pathfinders and admirable ambassa-dors for Arab sportsmen. And that is a hard act to follow.