Saudi Arabia produce improved display but still exit World Cup

Abdullah Otayf is dejected after Saudi Arabia lost 1-0 to Uruguay. (Reuters)
Updated 20 June 2018
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Saudi Arabia produce improved display but still exit World Cup

  • Luis Suarez wins Group A clash with goal after 23 minutes
  • Green Falcons go toe-to-toe with South Americans, but looked a bit toothless in attack

LONDON: It came too late to save Saudi Arabia’s World Cup hopes, but this was much more like it from the Green Falcons.
The record books will show that Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side are now without a win in 12 World Cup games and bowed out of this tournament with one game to spare, but this was a restorative afternoon in Rostov, a day when the Green Falcons put some pride back in the shirt.
The team received criticism from senior figures in the Kingdom after rolling over against Russia and they knew they needed to front up against Uruguay. Some of their international futures may have depended on it. The players did just that, mixing it with the two-time winners and showing that they did, after all, belong at this exalted level.
The big frustration for Pizzi will be that Uruguay did not have to work hard for their winning goal, recalled keeper Mohammed Al-Owais handing it to Luis Suarez on a plate with a piece of goalkeeping he will not look back on with any fondness. Suarez could not believe his luck that he was gift-wrapped a goal with which to mark his 100th international appearance. It undid such a promising start from the men in white.
The Green Falcons’ response to falling behind was impressive, though, full of intent and no little skill as they went toe to toe with the South American giants. They actually ended the first half with 57 percent of the possession and registered more attempts on target than their more vaunted opponents. This is what the Saudi Arabians packed into the muggy Rostov Stadium had come to see, their team giving their all and representing more than the sum of their parts. This was why the Green Falcons had finished ahead of Australia in qualifying.

For Saudi Arabia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, he was left to rue a lack of fire-power up front against the Uruguyans.

Speaking to the media immediately after the game, Pizzi said: "We kept the ball well, we had the majority of the posession, but we just did not have the weapons needed up front to equalize.

"We played at a much better level than in the Russia game, and that is more our style of play, but we just did not have the right tools to break Uruguay down."

The problem of scoring goals at this lofty level remains — this was the ninth time in 11 finals games they had failed to score — but that is a long-standing issue that was never going to be solved overnight. Most importantly, Pizzi got the type of reaction he was looking for after a performance against the hosts he described as “shameful.” Pizzi shook things up by dropping Omar Hawsawi, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, Abdullah Al-Mayoof and Yahya Al-Shehri, bringing in Al-Owais, Ali Hadi Al-Bulaihi, Hatan Bahbri and Fahad Al-Muwallad. The changes largely worked a treat, with Bahbri looking particularly lively cutting it from the right.
Saudi Arabia started brightly and on the front foot. They forced the first corner, won a free-kick on the edge of the Uruguay box and Al-Bulaihi showed more defensive resilience in blocking an early shot from Suarez than the Green Falcons did in the entire 90 minutes of the World Cup opener. You would not have known which team was ranked 14th and which was ranked 67th.
But the bright start was punctured just past the 20-minute mark. Al-Owais came to collect a corner but completely mis-judged the flight. He flapped at the ball with his left hand, got nowhere near it and that left Suarez with the simple task of slotting into an empty net with his left foot. It was the Barcelona man’s sixth goal in 10 World Cup games. He will not score an easier one.
It would have been easy for Saudi Arabia to fold like they did against Russia, but they showed they are made of sterner stuff than we first thought. Al-Muwallad shot over the bar from a tight angle, Bahbri forced a smart save from the Uruguay keeper and then the same player shot over at full stretch soon after. It was an encouraging response. Abdullah Otayf then left his mark soon after on Edison Cavani. Salem Al-Dawsari then clattered Matias Vecino. The Uruguayans knew they were in a game.
Saudi Arabia even recovered from the blow of losing key midfielder Taiseer Al-Jassam to injury before half-time, but Housain Al-Mogahwi came on and slotted in seamlessly. The most impressive thing about the performance was the control their midfield three enjoyed in the center of the field.
With their hopes of staying the tournament at stake, Pizzi might have thrown caution to the wind earlier than he did in the second half and throw on Al-Sahlawi, Al-Shehri or Muhannad Assiri. But he was just so worried about being opened up on the counterattack and risking another humiliation. With 15 minutes, he eventually opted for the height of Mohamed Kanno and the sharp-shooting of squad top-scorer Al-Sahlawi and asked his team to go more direct. They huffed and puffed but they just lacked the subtlety and muscle to breach a Uruguay defense marshalled by the wily Diego Godin. They will not be first to encounter that problem and certainly not the last.


Uruguay’s Indian cricketers searching for a permanent home

Updated 16 February 2019
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Uruguay’s Indian cricketers searching for a permanent home

  • Descendants of Indian immigrants carry banner for Uruguay in the cricket field

MONTEVIDEO: Every Sunday, close to a statue of Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, a group of Indian ex-pats take over a patch of land in Uruguay’s capital Montevideo for a game of cricket.
Tucked in between the Rio de la Plata estuary and the long promenade known as the “rambla” that stretches from one side of Montevideo to the other, Avijit Mukherjee prepares to bat, watched eagerly by his Uruguayan girlfriend.
“I played in my country but with a lot more infrastructure,” said the 28-year-old Mukherjee, whose girlfriend Veronica is the main reason he has stayed in Uruguay.
“There are stadiums and many places to play in India, whereas here we only have one.”
Although cricket was first played in Montevideo by British expat workers even before the foundation of the independent republic in 1828, its practice died out in the 1980s.
But following an influx of Indian immigrants to Uruguay at the turn of the century, cricket steadily returned to Montevideo.
First there were one-off matches. Then, the players organized their own league and even set up a Uruguayan national team.
At the end of last year, Uruguay, whose team was made up almost entirely of Indian expats, finished second in the South American championships in Colombia.
While the cricketers are now established on their little patch of land, their initial appearance was not entirely welcomed by local footballers playing on an adjacent pitch.
“We came like spiders and rebuked them,” recalls Daniel Mosco, a local resident who has been playing football in that field for 30 years.
The issue was quickly resolved, though, and the cricketers agreed to start playing only once the football matches had finished.
With no fixed cricket markings, players use flour to draw white lines.
Now, bat can be heard crashing against ball until sunset.
Even though they’ve been here for years, the shouts of “howzat!” and “wait on” still elicit glances from locals making their way along the rambla.
They make a curious spectacle for people little accustomed with either cricket or India.
Mosco, for one, was surprised that the players speak to each other in English.
And there’s another surprise in the form of 29-year-old doctor Saied Muhammad Asif Raza: he’s from Pakistan.
“Between the governments and in (professional) cricket there are always problems, but the people get on really well and within the team the are no problems whatsoever,” said Asif.
He left his home town of Multan, 10 hours from Islamabad, at 19 and moved to Cuba thanks to a Fidel Castro scholarship.
After returning home, he found he couldn’t readapt to his own culture.
“I didn’t come here to find a better life economically, I had a better life in my country because in my family we didn’t lack for anything,” said Asif.
“The thing is that when you live many years away, nowhere is home, and cricket brings me close to it.”
Although now at home on their small patch, finding something more permanent is crucial to Montevideo’s cricketers.
“We’re looking for a permanent ground,” Beerbal Maniyattukudy, the Uruguayan cricket association’s secretary, told AFP.
“We have 120 players this year. On top of that we’re starting some women’s teams and for now we have 20 people interested. We also have plans for an under-15s league.”
The solution may lie with Uruguay’s most popular football team: Penarol.
Penarol started life as the Central Uruguay Railway Cricket Club (CURCC), founded by British railway workers in 1891.
It was a multisport club — but just over 20 years later, its football section broke off and was absorbed by a newly created team, Penarol.
The original club’s cricket section disappeared as football became the main focus — but it was relaunched a week ago.
And crucially, Penarol are planning to build a cricket pitch an hour outside Montevideo.
“When we raised the idea of cricket, there wasn’t much to sort out; everyone was aware of what it meant to the history of the club, we just needed to work out how to make it happen,” said Leonardo Vinas, who is heading up the project.
While many club members signed up to be involved, very few have ever played cricket.
Vinas says the project will take time, not just to spread interest in the sport, but also for the club’s staff to get their heads around the rules of the game.
“Even now, we’re still not clear about certain rules.”