Belief running high for Saudi Arabia’s Young Falcons

Saudi Arabia in action against Myanmar in the Asian Games. (AFP)
Updated 20 August 2018
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Belief running high for Saudi Arabia’s Young Falcons

  • Where others have picked over-aged players, Saudi Arabia, in contrast, have brought their U-21 team
  • Al-Shehri arrived at the Games playing down the importance of results and focusing on performances

JAKARTA: Saudi Arabia’s football team are doing things differently at the Asian Games this month. The three-week tournament is open to players aged under-23, with countries having the option to select three over-age players. The result is hosts Indonesia have selected a 37-year-old naturalized Brazilian and South Korea, whose players can avoid mandatory military service if they win gold, have called upon Heung-min Son, the Tottenham Hotspur forward.
Saudi Arabia, in contrast, have brought their Under-21 team.

Coach Saad Al-Shehri, who has been in charge of the side for three years, does not shy from the fact his Young Falcons are here primarily to gain experience and develop ahead of a crucial U23 Asian Championships, which offers direct qualification to the Olympic Games.

Yet he is also aware the deeper his side go this month, the more it will ultimately benefit the Kingdom’s Tokyo 2020 objective.
“We are playing here with an Under-21 team in a tournament that is for Under-23s,” he said. “But I believe in these players. I worked with them at the Under-20 World Cup in 2017 in Korea and this team is the future of Saudi Arabia. I do not doubt that, and the Federation is in agreement.
“The players need more experience, more games and strong tournaments, but we all believe in them and our work will continue on this path. This is the squad that we want to qualify for Tokyo.”
Al-Shehri arrived at the Games playing down the importance of results and focusing on performances, but after two games in Jakarta, his team sit joint-top of Group F alongside Iran, with whom they drew 0-0 in their opening game. A comfortable 3-0 victory over Myanmar on Friday means progress to the knock-out stages is all but secure, with today’s match against North Korea offering an opportunity to secure an easier Round of 16 draw.
Finalists in 2014, North Korea were expected to prove the most difficult opponent of the group stage, yet a draw with Myanmar and a 3-0 humbling by Iran have altered expectations for both sides. Al-Shehri, who will be without key playmaker Ayman Al-Khulaif today through suspension, is now expected to make several changes to avoid fatigue in what will be the Young Falcons’ third game in five days.
“I have 20 players and trust them all,” Al-Shehri told Arab News. “I am confident we can play a good game against North Korea because we have players hungry and waiting to take their chance. Everybody is ready to play and be involved. Whether we win or lose… all we want is to play games. We need to play more games to improve and the further in the tournament we go, the more games we play, so if we get to the final it’s very good for us regardless. Every single game we play between now and the Tokyo qualifiers is very important for us.”
Al-Khulaif, 21, has been instrumental in his side’s results so far, proving a constant outlet on the right of midfield and drawing nine fouls, including two penalties. The Al-Ahli playmaker made his Pro League debut last season, coming on as a 90th minute substitute for Taiser Al-Jassem against Ohod, and will hope this tournament can help him catch the eye of new Al-Ahli boss Pablo Guede.
Forced to sit out today’s match, he is looking to the positives. “I am sad to miss the next game, but I trust fully in my teammates to get a good result and it gives me a chance to rest and, inshallah, prepare better for the knock-out stages.”


Uruguay’s Indian cricketers searching for a permanent home

Updated 28 min 7 sec ago
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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.”