‘Saudi Arabia must be Brave,’ says former Green Falcons boss Marcos Paqueta

Marcos Paqueta was in charge of Saudi Arabia the last time they played at the World Cup, in Germany 2006.
Updated 13 June 2018

‘Saudi Arabia must be Brave,’ says former Green Falcons boss Marcos Paqueta

  • Former boss backs side to make it to knockout stages if they play without fear.
  • Paqueta led Saudi Arabia at their last World Cup, 12 years ago.

MOSCOW: Marcos Paqueta is the last man to lead Saudi Arabia at a World Cup. The Brazilian, who took the reins ahead of the 2006 tournament after guiding Al-Hilal to a second-placed finish in the Saudi Professional League, speaks to Arab News about the challenges of coaching the Green Falcons, the perils of being a coach, and his thoughts on the side’s chances ahead of today’s opener in Russia.

Just like current manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, you were brought in after the team had already qualified for the World Cup. What are your memories of that 2006 tournament?

For me, it was a great accomplishment to have participated in a World Cup. The squad arrived after a very troubled World Cup in 2002 with some big defeats, such as the 8-0 against Germany. There was a very depressed and fearful feeling in the camp, but we took the players to a psychologist, who helped change that. It was cool and actually quite a smooth process because I previously worked at Al-Hilal and that season we had enjoyed some success, so we had around 10 Hilal players in the squad. The way they played was 4-4-2 and the way I played was 4-5-1, so on a tactical level, it was close to a perfect fit too. The only real concern, even from the federation, was psychological.

It is rare for a country to let a coach go after he qualifies for a World Cup, yet Saudi Arabia did it in 2006 with Gabriel Calderon and last year with Bert van Marwijk. What do you make of the pressures on modern-day coaches?

Ahead of the World Cup, we played many strong matches: Against Poland, against Greece, who were European champions, against Portugal. The results were not good, but the experience gained was. The team held their own against these teams, so we got rid of the fear of a thrashing and built confidence. The current Saudi team seem to have tried a similar tactic. Nowadays though, with the Internet, 24-hour news, social media it all heightens the pressure and speeds up the process. And it’s the coach who pays the price. I’ve coached in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Libya, Egypt, Iraq … it happens a lot in the Arab world. Everyone has a voice and if people let themselves get carriedaway, they can be led by others.

What do you make of the current team? You are back in Brazil now, but have you had a chance to watch them at all recently? Who do you think will qualify from Group A?

Yes, I always follow my former teams. We still have a good relationship there in Saudi Arabia. The team is in a difficult group, no doubt; a group that also includes a Red Sea derby. For me, it is the Egypt game that will decide who qualifies. We know that Uruguay and Egypt are very strong with many players playing abroad, which is important, but Russia are hosts and to play at home brings a lot of pressure. Saudi Arabia can benefit. It is a difficult group to predict, but the first phase of a World Cup is when teams take a little more risk. It’s hard to say which team will qualify, but Saudi Arabia must be brave.

Your team in 2006 played against Tunisia, this year Saudi Arabia will play Egypt. Did you feel extra pressure in the match against regional neighbors? Were the players more motivated? 

This type of rivalry will always exist in the Arab countries and the Tunisia game was a very well-fought match — 90 minutes full of soul and emotions. With two minutes to go, we were winning 2-1 and getting our campaign off to a great start. But there was something missing from the maturity of the players and we were unable to secure the positive result. This year, well, Egypt has a very big rivalry with Saudi Arabia and with Mohamed Salah, they have a player who can change a game. He has plenty of experience. It will be a very well-played match though; a very interesting game. For sure, there is no chance I will miss it.

'We want to make Saudi Arabia proud': Pizzi promises better showing against Egypt

Updated 21 June 2018

'We want to make Saudi Arabia proud': Pizzi promises better showing against Egypt

  • Saudi Arabia cannot progress from Group A even if they defeat Egypt in their final game on Monday
  • Wednesday’s overall performance was much improved, yet a lack of penetrative passing was obvious

ROSTOV-ON-DON: “Keeping possession of the ball seems to be the absolute and most important thing, but then when you sometimes find issues in getting the ball into your opponent’s half, you have to find other movements and ways of doing that,” said Oscar Tabarez after watching his lackluster Uruguay rely on a solitary Luis Suarez goal to eliminate Saudi Arabia from the World Cup. 
Tabarez was talking about his own team’s struggles, yet the assessment is considerably more applicable to the Green Falcons, who dominated possession and retained the ball with ease in midfield, yet for the second match running looked absolutely bereft of ideas in the final third. With Uruguay and Russia now on six points, Saudi Arabia cannot progress from Group A even if they defeat Egypt in their final game on Monday.
The Green Falcons coach Juan Antonio Pizzi confirmed he intends to stay at the helm of the side for the long-haul, yet is only too aware that the potential of this team is being hamstrung by its inability to score. He called it “our weakness”, adding that his side enjoyed “good ball possession, but no effectiveness”. They, he said, did not have the sufficient “weapons or tools” to equalize.
Pizzi’s side have found the net now just twice in their past five games and against Uruguay managed only three shots on target in 90 minutes — two of which came in added time and were so tame they would hardly have troubled the opposition goalkeeper Fernando Muslera had he been relaxing at his far post sipping a drink. In the 5-0 defeat to Russia last week, they failed to muster a single shot on target. 
Wednesday’s overall performance was much improved, yet a lack of penetrative passing was obvious. One passage of play in the opening exchanges saw Saudi Arabia complete 16 passes untroubled without the ball entering the opposition penalty box. When Uruguay finally won possession, they required only four quick exchanges to find Edinson Cavani on the left wing drilling the ball across the front of goal. 
“I don’t share that assessment,” said Pizzi, when it was put to him that his team was too slow to attack. “We played at the speed that was necessary. We need to be accurate, but if you step up the speed you lose accuracy with your passes. We had control of the game and that was why.”
Striker Mohammed Al-Sahlawi had been the focal point of much criticism from Turki Al-Sheikh, the head of Saudi’s General Sports Authority, after the Russia “fiasco” and was dropped from the side against Uruguay. So too was goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, another who Al-Sheikh name-checked as having been at fault.
Pizzi, asked whether the scathing assessment from his bosses had forced his hand when it came to team selection, calmly dismissed the suggestion. He also ruled out the notion that administrative issues between the players and the country’s football federation had caused unrest in his squad.
“I have a list of 23 players here and they are all available to play. We are here together and pushing in the same direction. 
“I wanted — and still want — to make the Saudi Arabian people feel proud of our energy and the desire we show in matches. Unfortunately we were unable to do that against Russia and will be playing our next match without any hope of progressing. I hope now they will feel a little more proud even though we are out of the World Cup,” he said.