Saudi Arabia return home ruing opening World Cup defeat to Russia

Saudi Arabia return home ruing opening World Cup defeat to Russia
The Saudi Arabia players returned home to Riyadh on Tuesday. (@SaudiNT)
Updated 02 July 2018

Saudi Arabia return home ruing opening World Cup defeat to Russia

Saudi Arabia return home ruing opening World Cup defeat to Russia
  • 'The dream was to go through,' says team manager
  • But 5-0 defeat to Russia cost them dearly

MOSCOW: Saudi Arabia may have returned to Riyadh before the World Cup group stage has wrapped up, but Omar Bakhashwain, the Green Falcons team manager, believes the benefits of their participation will be felt for years to come.
After four years of planning, the country’s push for a place in the knock-out rounds was practically over before it could start; their 5-0 defeat to Russia on opening night making progress all but impossible. Yet improved results in their following two games against Uruguay and Egypt meant the squad flew home on Monday night with their heads held high.
Bakhashwain, the former Saudi Arabia striker now charged with overseeing the administrative side of the national team, said the general mood in the camp was positive after defeating Egypt 2-1 in their final Group A match. Had his side not been involved in the pressure-cooker environment of the opening game, he believes the World Cup could have played out very differently.
Watched by an estimated 250 million people around the world, opening night was preluded by the customary ceremony of music and culture. It was the first time an Asian side had been involved in the first game at a World Cup and the disruptions in preparation and atmosphere proved difficult to deal with.
“Overall I think we can all agree that we wanted to do better,” Bakhashwain told Arab News. “The dream was to go through because every team wants to finish as the top side in their group. But for a team of players who have never played a World Cup before and to play the opening game, for sure, there is something different.
“When you look at the three games, you see that in the opening game there were a lot of emotions. Everything was new, even the warm-up — you warm up for less time because you have to go outside and wait 40 minutes for the opening ceremony. These things were all new for us and came into play in that first game, but it was also a great experience.”
After the embarrassment of the first match, Saudi Arabia improved notably, demonstrating belief in coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s methods and a desire to show the world that opening night was an anomaly. Monday’s victory was a first World Cup win in 24 years and such was the change in sentiment from disappointment to delight, Pizzi was handed a seven-month contract extension on Tuesday. He will lead the squad at the Asian Cup in January.
“Look at the team and the level of the team and it was always getting better,” Bakhashwain added. “I wish there had been a fourth group game for us so we could have gone through. The curve was always going up. We woke up after that first game and we did a good job. All three games we had more possession than the opposition, but obviously we have areas we must improve and the coach will look at that going forward.
“I know that this is the best performance at a World Cup since 1994, but I think we could have done better if it was not for the opening game. You have to accept surprises though, and that is one of the things we faced in that first game. This is football —
every day we learn something new. We had never played an opening game at a World Cup, but now that we have we will be better for it with more experience for the future.”
A schedule of friendly matches are in the pipeline before the Asian Cup, to be held in the UAE from Jan. 5 to Feb. 1. Saudi Arabia have been drawn in a group with Qatar, Lebanon and North Korea and are looking to win it for the first time since 1996.
“For sure, they will take away experience from this World Cup and any positives we leave with we can use in the next competition,” Bakhashwain concluded. “The negative things we just have to try to forget.”