MOSCOW: Two hours after the final whistle, the door creaked open and a pair of eyes peeked through. It was a Saudi Arabia press officer checking to see if the swollen mass of media had dispersed. Losing 5-0 to Russia in the World Cup’s opening match in front of 250 million viewers was a nightmare scenario, but with a flight to Saint Petersburg fast approaching, the players could not hide any longer; they were going to have to complete the walk of shame.
Reporters and camera crews had lined up waiting to hear how a match that had been billed as winnable just hours earlier had finished in one of the Green Falcons’ heaviest defeats. With most of Russia’s players having already left, many media had tired of waiting, but a handful remained. And so as Mario Fernandes, the Brazil-born Russian defender, chatted candidly with a phalanx of Portuguese journalists, the Saudi Arabian players traipsed past.
Heads down and headphones in place, they each walked slowly and solemnly without speaking a word. Not one player chose to face the music head-on, they avoided the questions that needed answering. In many ways, it reflected perfectly what had been witnessed on the pitch earlier in the evening.
Against the lowest-ranked team at the tournament, it was a display lacking both composure and positional discipline. The full-backs crept higher up the pitch than all but one teammate; an impotent attack failed to muster a single shot on target; and the central defensive pairing of Osama and Omar Hawsawi will have Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani licking their lips in anticipation of the next clash.
Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi was furious, but spoke calmly to his players at full time. There were no tears in the dressing room, just a feeling of disappointment in their performance. The Argentine told them that the game must now be forgotten. It is time to refocus.
Pizzi later called the performance “shameful,” adding that Russia “really didn’t have to produce a huge effort to win by a landslide.”
“We have studied them and knew them very well,” Pizzi, who also had to field questions about his future, told reporters.
“We knew how they would play. They lose possession of the ball, play cross balls, high passes … I don’t think they have done anything to surprise us.
“They have won by a landslide, but they have won without doing much. It is our poor performance that explains the result.”
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov said he would “partially concur” with such an assessment.
“Pizzi is a great coach,” he said.
“As to the system and the players, yes, he’s right, no big surprises. (But) he overlooked the fact we showed discipline and maturity.”
Fernandes, still speaking even after all 23 Saudi Arabia players had passed through in silence, said he believed his side had forced the situation. “Saudi Arabia attack a lot, but in defense they are a little vulnerable,” he said.
“We enjoyed that. We worked very hard and knew the importance of winning.
“We played a great game and deserved it. They are not weak. They have played friendlies against big teams and the results have been small. Who made the game become easy was us.”
The Saudi Arabian Football Federation, unlike with Carlos Alberto Parreira who was fired mid-tournament in 1998, have no plans to dismiss Pizzi. In a video posted to social media, Turki Al-Sheikh, the country’s sports minister, absolved both the head coach and team manager Omar Bakhashwain of blame, instead saying the responsibility must fall at his door and that of the players. They watched the video before flying back to their training base in Saint Petersburg. It came as no surprise.
Indeed, when asked whether the team lacked sufficient preparation for the clash, Pizzi replied: “I believe that we were well prepared. We have been preparing for this, and my players have shown they are ready to play a World Cup.
“I can only say what I have said before. This game cannot be the reference. It’s true we have not done what we came here to do. We have not done what we have done in previous matches that gave us good results.”
The Saudi manager must now gather his charges and prepare for Uruguay and their clash in Rostov-on-Don on Wednesday.
“I have seen a development since we started working together,” Pizzi said. “Of course, this game is not the point of reference for me. We did not play as we had planned to. We can and will improve, but it takes time. We have to plan for next game, recover, be positive and try to get a better result.”
Having trained privately in the afternoon, the Saudi players were expected to attend a special Eid dinner in the evening.
Unsurprisingly, there is little celebratory mood in the camp.