ROSTOV: “Strikers are annoying,” said Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf recently. On Wednesday against Uruguay, he and the rest of the Green Falcons are expected to face two of the world’s very best in Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. And having conceded five goals against Russia, the man between the Saudi Arabia sticks is expected to be busier than ever.
Al-Mayouf, however, will take comfort from the fact that he has been preparing with one of the most respected goalkeeper coaches in the world. Frans Hoek has been working with the Green Falcons since the start of March, arriving with a CV that includes spells at Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. This is the 61-year-old Dutchman’s third World Cup after working with Poland in 2006 and the Netherlands in 2014.
Hoek, who has worked with keepers of the quality of Victor Valdes, Edwin van der Sar and David de Gea, has said in the past that the ideal goalkeeper must be taller than 1.85 meters, ambitious, disciplined and extremely coachable.
Under the guidance of Hoek, coach Juan Antonio Pizzi experimented with six different options during his seven months in charge ahead of the World Cup. Al-Mayouf, at 1.78 meters, is the smallest of the three goalkeepers to travel to Russia, yet is expected to get the nod ahead of Yasser Al-Mosailem and the Al-Ahli veteran’s domestic teammate Mohammed Al-Owais.
The decision to start Al-Mayouf in Moscow last Thursday raised eyebrows back home. The 31-year-old had not had an outstanding season with Al-Hilal, being pinpointed by Urawa Reds coach Takafumi Hori as one of the Saudi Arabia club side’s weak spots ahead of the Asian Champions League final last November. He also struggled in the Green Falcons’ 3-0 friendly defeat against Peru earlier this month, although did win man of the match in the 2-1 defeat to Germany a few days later.
During training, Hoek — who has a Masters degree in Physical Education — initially works with the three goalkeepers away from the rest of the squad, testing their reactions from close range and running repetition drills in which they must leap and collect a ball at their highest point. Later, they are integrated into the group as the Dutchman not only believes games are best practice, but also acknowledges the modern game demands a goalkeeper to be much more than a safe pair of hands.
“It’s more and more integrated in the team because the goalkeeper is part of that team,” Hoek said. “He is never alone, always with his teammates, and he has to perform with them against other players, so you need to prepare him for that.”
While Al-Mosailem praised Hoek as a “great coach, very well known in Europe” and revealed the coach had been “focussing on many things with us, particularly technical,” the message of goalkeeper-as-team-player seems to have been drilled into Al-Mayouf, who said he believes “the keeper is considered half of the team.”
Although Al-Mayouf regularly shows good reactions from close range, he struggles at times against shots from distance, which has routinely proved itself a problem for Saudi Arabia under Pizzi. Russia’s final goal, a fine free-kick from Aleksandr Golovin, appeared to catch him off guard, forcing him to scurry unsuccessfully toward his left upright. It is something Hoek has been working on this week.
“Not the result we wanted,” the Dutchman wrote on social media.
“Not the way of playing we wanted. Not what we expected. Not what we worked hard for together. We are all disappointed. But this is sport. We have to pick up the pieces, work hard and focus on the next game. That’s what we will do.”
The next game is against a side that finished behind only Brazil in South American qualifying, scoring 32 times in 18 games. Cavani, the Paris Saint-Germain forward, also finished qualifying as the region’s top scorer with 10, three more than Lionel Messi and Gabriel Jesus and five more than his Uruguay teammate Luis Suarez.
The pair have the potential to be very “annoying” when the Green Falcons face Uruguay in Rostov-on-Don, but whoever stands between the posts will take confidence from the fact they have been as well prepared as is possible.
“The secret behind a goalkeeper’s successful performance after disappointment is determination and discipline in training,” said Al-Mosailem. “If you train well, you will get a chance to prove yourself again.”