MOSCOW: Marcos Paqueta is the last man to lead Saudi Arabia at a World Cup. The Brazilian, who took the reins ahead of the 2006 tournament after guiding Al-Hilal to a second-placed finish in the Saudi Professional League, speaks to Arab News about the challenges of coaching the Green Falcons, the perils of being a coach, and his thoughts on the side’s chances ahead of today’s opener in Russia.
Just like current manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, you were brought in after the team had already qualified for the World Cup. What are your memories of that 2006 tournament?
For me, it was a great accomplishment to have participated in a World Cup. The squad arrived after a very troubled World Cup in 2002 with some big defeats, such as the 8-0 against Germany. There was a very depressed and fearful feeling in the camp, but we took the players to a psychologist, who helped change that. It was cool and actually quite a smooth process because I previously worked at Al-Hilal and that season we had enjoyed some success, so we had around 10 Hilal players in the squad. The way they played was 4-4-2 and the way I played was 4-5-1, so on a tactical level, it was close to a perfect fit too. The only real concern, even from the federation, was psychological.
It is rare for a country to let a coach go after he qualifies for a World Cup, yet Saudi Arabia did it in 2006 with Gabriel Calderon and last year with Bert van Marwijk. What do you make of the pressures on modern-day coaches?
Ahead of the World Cup, we played many strong matches: Against Poland, against Greece, who were European champions, against Portugal. The results were not good, but the experience gained was. The team held their own against these teams, so we got rid of the fear of a thrashing and built confidence. The current Saudi team seem to have tried a similar tactic. Nowadays though, with the Internet, 24-hour news, social media it all heightens the pressure and speeds up the process. And it’s the coach who pays the price. I’ve coached in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Libya, Egypt, Iraq … it happens a lot in the Arab world. Everyone has a voice and if people let themselves get carriedaway, they can be led by others.
What do you make of the current team? You are back in Brazil now, but have you had a chance to watch them at all recently? Who do you think will qualify from Group A?
Yes, I always follow my former teams. We still have a good relationship there in Saudi Arabia. The team is in a difficult group, no doubt; a group that also includes a Red Sea derby. For me, it is the Egypt game that will decide who qualifies. We know that Uruguay and Egypt are very strong with many players playing abroad, which is important, but Russia are hosts and to play at home brings a lot of pressure. Saudi Arabia can benefit. It is a difficult group to predict, but the first phase of a World Cup is when teams take a little more risk. It’s hard to say which team will qualify, but Saudi Arabia must be brave.
Your team in 2006 played against Tunisia, this year Saudi Arabia will play Egypt. Did you feel extra pressure in the match against regional neighbors? Were the players more motivated?
This type of rivalry will always exist in the Arab countries and the Tunisia game was a very well-fought match — 90 minutes full of soul and emotions. With two minutes to go, we were winning 2-1 and getting our campaign off to a great start. But there was something missing from the maturity of the players and we were unable to secure the positive result. This year, well, Egypt has a very big rivalry with Saudi Arabia and with Mohamed Salah, they have a player who can change a game. He has plenty of experience. It will be a very well-played match though; a very interesting game. For sure, there is no chance I will miss it.