LONDON: AFC Technical Director Andy Roxburgh has backed Saudi Arabia to get out of their group at next year’s Asian Cup, but urged players of both countries to gain international experience in Europe’s top leagues.
In October the Green Falcons lost 2-0 against a star-studded Brazil side and drew 1-1 with Iraq on home soil as preparations for January’s continental championship in the UAE intensified. They then took that form into their 1-0 win over Yemen last week and face Jordan today.
At the 2015 Asian Cup Saudi Arabia were eliminated in the first round, finishing third in a group with China, Uzbekistan and North Korea.
But Roxburgh, pictured right, who has been AFC technical director for four years, has backed them to do better this time around, highlighting the stability that Juan Antonio Pizzi’s contract extension after the World Cup will give the Green Falcons.
“Anything that creates continuity and stability is helpful in football,” Roxburgh told Arab News.
“If you are constantly changing the coach every two minutes it isn’t helpful for anybody. Pizzi’s CV is obviously very good having won with Chile in South America and clearly he has a good background.
“They have only won (two matches in their past 10) and that was against Egypt in Russia. Losing to Brazil, though, is clearly not a big deal. That is pretty par for the course, but from the group they are in with North Korea, Lebanon and Qatar you would expect them to qualify for the next stage.”
Andy Roxburgh wants to see the young guns that won Saudi Arabia the U-19 Asian Championship go abroad to further their footballing education. (AFP)
Earlier this month Saudi Arabian football received a boost as their side qualified for next year’s U-20 World Cup in Poland. Goals from Turki Al-Ammar and Khaled Issa Al-Ghannam helped the Young Falcons become the U-19 Asian Champions for a third time as they defeated South Korea 2-1 in the final in Jakarta. Roxburgh praised the performance, but warned against reading too much into results from youth football.
“They have got some very good attacking players in the team,” said Roxburgh. “I just analyzed all the goals from that tournament, 117 goals. The Saudi boys, from the midfield to the attack — some were obviously good on the ball and they could beat people and finish.
“How many might star in the national team? You will be lucky if it is one. So, although it is very positive in a youth development sense, it can only be viewed in the context of the national team in the long term. It would mean that Saudi Arabia need to continue to do well.
“That is where Japan, over many years, have been doing consistently well at youth level. A lot of players that have been coming out of these teams are now playing for the Japanese national team.”
At senior level Japan, the 2011 Asian champions, have benefitted immensely from the international experience their players have gained abroad. In October the Samurai Blue had 10 foreign-based players in their 23-man squad, while Saudi Arabia had none. To bridge the gap with the Asian elite Saudi Arabia and the West Asian region at large need more players to ply their trade in Europe, according to Roxburgh.
“Whether you like it or not, the top leagues in Europe have the best players in the world,” said Roxburgh. “They have the resources, the money and the crowds. Players from all over the world, inevitably, congregate there. That experience is invaluable when they come back to their national team. Japan and Australia, and to a lesser extent Iran, benefit from that. In the case of the UAE and in particular Saudi Arabia, when you think about it, they are all home-based. So, this is one of the things: As long as the players in the West Asian teams don’t experience the highest level of club football, then that will always be a problem.”
Still, Roxburgh believes that the Asian Cup will be a very competitive and open tournament as a 24-team format is introduced for the first time.
“It is wide open,” said Roxburgh. “It is not easy to predict this. The tournament comes so fast after the World Cup. If you take what happened in Europe with the expanded European championship. They thought this would be a problem and it turned out the opposite, because of the success of the small countries like Wales and Iceland.”