Saudi Arabia enlist help of Chelsea guru to help with World Cup mind games

Saudi Arabia enlist help of Chelsea guru to help with World Cup mind games
Saudi Arabia have been working on the physical side of the game as well as the mental side in preparation for the opening game against Russia. (AFP)
Updated 13 June 2018

Saudi Arabia enlist help of Chelsea guru to help with World Cup mind games

Saudi Arabia enlist help of Chelsea guru to help with World Cup mind games
  • Green Falcons have recruited Chelsea’s head of sports science and psychology Tim Harkness on a temporary basis
  • 'Tim has been doing his job very well, preparing the players mentally to be ready'

MOSCOW: The seemingly insatiable hunger for football statistics means details of everything from kilometers covered to the number of interceptions in the opposition half are widely available. Yet while it is possible for external parties such as Opta to record advanced in-game metrics, there is no formula yet for them to calculate players’ psychological levels in terms of stress, focus, and awareness.
Saudi Arabia will face Russia tomorrow in the opening match of the FIFA World Cup. The tournament has been four years in the making and the tie is expected to attract more than 250 million television viewers, as well as more than 80,000 fans squeezed into the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. For each of the 22 players that stand as the national anthems play, the expectation and burden upon their shoulders will be at an all-time high.
Omar Bakhashwain, the Saudi team manager charged with administrative responsibilities, said he and the squad are under no illusions regarding the number of eyes on them this week. After a chance meeting last December with Fernando Hierro, the former Spain and Real Madrid player and currently a director with the Spanish FA, he said they are looking at it as a blessing rather than a curse.
“I met Hierro at the draw in Moscow and we were talking about qualification and how to deal with a World Cup, both as a player and as a manager,” Bakhashwain, a former national team forward, told Arab News. “He told me that a World Cup lasts a month and there is so much football going on — sometimes three games on a single day — and that we are so lucky to play the opening game.
“It is the first game of the tournament, the only game that day, and will be broadcast all over the world. On the second day there will be many games and each country will follow their teams, but on June 14 it is only us and everybody will watch. It is a very good chance not only for the team but for the country, and I hope we can show the world that our football is changing. We have reached a high level of competition and now we look forward to showing that.”
Increased attention brings with it added pressure. Football is filled with examples of players struggling to cope with the mental side of the game — From David Luiz’s ill-disciplined performance in Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany in 2014 to Loris Karius’ error-strewn showing in last month’s Champions League final.
For Saudi Arabia, with a 23-man squad of players accustomed to playing in the country’s Pro League, which last season averaged attendances of 6,000, it marks a huge step up in visibility. In a bid to prepare them sufficiently for the added attention, the country’s football federation earlier this year recruited Chelsea’s head of sports science and psychology Tim Harkness on a temporary basis.
Harkness has spent the past few years helping prepare the English side for the pressures of key Champions League matches and cup finals. This year, he has been traveling irregularly to meet the Saudi players at training camps, working with them on improving their focus and ability to block out distractions.
“Tim has been doing his job very well, preparing the players mentally to be ready,” said Bakhashwain. “I hope everything is ready. The government has prepared everything for us to be ready for the World Cup. We are not missing anything.”
Saudi’s Argentinian coach Juan Antonio Pizzi played at the 1998 World Cup with Spain and knows the strains that come with taking part in tournament watched by billions over the course of a month. With Russia without a win in seven matches and facing huge expectations to perform at their own event, Pizzi hopes to use the opening game and all it entails as an advantage for his side.
“It’s very difficult. The closer the competition gets, it’s unavoidable that you don’t feel the pressure,” Pizzi said.
“But you have to try to return to the point you were at when you were focusing only on your main objective — what you want to do. For example, when you work to achieve something, then you have to work solely on that and avoid the distractions and pressures. That will give you comfort and bring calm. It’s the only way to deal with such things. Heightened attention can be a positive or negative, so we are trying hard to give the players all the circumstances and conditions so it works in their favor.”